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I would not normally pick up a book with this title, it makes it sound a bit chick-lit-y, but in fact, if I was forced to pigeon-hole this book into a genre, I would go for mystery. It was actually a book club choice, so I bought it without really reading the synopsis, so had no preconceptions. It is named after a self-help book of the same name written for middle class women in the 1930s, a copy of which was presented to our protagonist on the occasion of her marriage.
Marta Bjorkman is married with an adult son who has left their Scandinavian valley home, for the city where he works and lives with his girlfriend Katya. Marta married Hector, an older man, when she was quite young, after the death of her parents. The story is told in Marta's voice, and first of all you realise that something isn't quite right with Marta. She seems to have a bit of OCD, she doesn't like to go too far from home, and sticks to her routine. Hector tells her she has empty-nest syndrome, and that she needs to take her meds. We don't really know what meds these are but Marta has not been taking them nor telling Hector (who seems pre-occupied anyway) and now she has started to see strange hallucinations of a young girl. Who is she? Why is this happening?
For me, this confusion and mystery around Marta, her condition and back story, seem to take a while to get going. The book is certainly a slow burner at this point, and I was disappointed in what seemed to be a bit of a 'nothing' story. It took me a while to care about Marta's hallucinations. About half-way in, the loose ends started to get tied up, and you started to build up picture of Marta's past and why she is this strange, lonely woman. My interest was piqued and I was sucked in to Marta's emotional journey as the pieces fell into place. I wanted to keep going back to the book and seeing what was going to happen next and see which direction Chapman was going to take the book in.
The book is only 256 pages long, so is not a long read and I read it in just a few days in my lunch breaks and on one tube journey. It is certainly not a hard or challenging read, but it is quite dark in places. When I was struggling about 40% of the way through I checked the Amazon reviews, which were mostly positive, and saw that this book had been compared to Room by Emma Donoghue. This was one of my favourite books from last year, but sadly this book doesn't match it for me. It is true that both books have themes of isolation, and are shades of light and dark in places, but this isn't a gripping enough book for me. I didn't engage with Marta, nor did I understand why I should empathise with her in the beginning. A lead character doesn't have to be perfect or relatable for you to engage with them, this is done through exceptional character building and story-telling, and sadly the story-telling here is just 'good'. I understand that this is Chapman's debut novel, and there is certainly promise here and I would be interested to read what she publishes next.
All in all I think this is 3.5 out of 5, and after some dithering I have marked it at 3, which may be a bit harsh, but I expected something more from this book.
£5.51 for the paperback on Amazon, £3.99 for the Kindle edition.