Jamie Ford does it again. I adored Hotel On The Corner Of Bitter And Sweet, Jamie Ford‘s first novel, with its tender love story holding its own against a vividly drawn background of war and racial tension. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but this novel steps it up another gear – if I wept at the first book, this one really had me in pieces. Again, the background is vast, but the focus is on a small story in the middle of it all.
There are two linked story threads, separated by time. In 1931, William is 12 and a long-term resident at the Sacred Heart orphanage near Seattle. This is a harsh environment of beatings and grub-ridden food: but this is the children’s birthday (an arbitrary one, based on the Pope’s birthday), so the children are given a present from home and a trip to the movie theatre. William’s “gift” is the news that his mother was taken to a sanatorium when doctors refused to care for her – both William and his mother are Chinese. At the theatre, William recognises the singer on the screen – known as Willow Frost – as his mother, and so begins his search for her, accompanied by his blind but clear-sighted friend Charlotte. The other thread is Willow’s story - one of persecution, prejudice, and survival by any means available.
This is a really heartbreaking read, told in a simple and straightforward storytelling style that I found quite mesmerising. It’s an easy read in some ways, but in others extremely difficult – there are some moments almost too painful to read on. William is a brilliantly drawn character – engaging and old beyond his years, but vulnerable and loveable too. Willow is also a strong character, singing at a sheet music store to support her child and surviving the most dreadful privations at home.
Despite the immense sadness the book manages to tread a difficult line to remain well on the right side of desperation, and Jamie Ford’s wonderfully simple prose and rich descriptions - that bring 20s and 30s Seattle to life - shine throughout. Without a shadow of a doubt, this is one of my books of the year so far – don’t miss it.
My thanks to netgalley and Random House for the advance reading e-copy. This book will be released in the UK on 10th September 2013 by Allison and Busby.