Sometimes you come across real life stories and think "you couldn't have made that up", on the assumption that no-one would have believed it as a work of fiction, and only because it actually did happen does it now have to be believed. Sometimes, therefore, in order to write a realistic story, but one that people will always know is, underneath it all, make-believe, you almost have to err on the side of caution so people don't say "pah, that could never have happened" and put the story down. This book doesn't follow this pattern though. In fact, it's so unrealistic, so unlikely, so unbelievable in places that it goes full circle and becomes all the more believable as a result, if that makes sense.
Molly is a runaway who has little more than a passing acquaintance with the truth. She left home after an unfortunate incident where she told some rather serious un-truths to a teacher, and got her father in an awful lot of trouble as a result. One day, sitting outside a church, crying to herself, she is spotted by an old shop owner who decides to "rescue" her: he provides her with a place to stay and a job in his shop. In return he only asks that, now and then, she climbs a ladder in the shop, tidies up a few things and indulges him with a few sordid tales while he pervs up her skirt. Seriously. It's a bizarre start to a story and one that, when I write it, will no doubt make you sceptical as to the success of such a tale, but then I'm no writer. Sarah Salway, on the other hand, is, and through her eyes this series of events turn into a fast-paced, wicked story that is hard to put down.
If the completely off the wall background setting of the story wasn't enough, the characters Molly encounters really bring it to life. There's Mr Roberts, said shop owner, with his funny little ways. Mrs Roberts, his exotic French wife who exudes a level of chic-ness to which Molly can only aspire. Miranda, a new friend who dresses hair in the salon next door is Molly's partner in crime and confidant, while Liz, a love-hungry librarian provides inspiration for many stories through the works she recommends. Finally, there's new boyfriend Tim who may, or may not be a spy. Ooh err.
The thing that struck me about this book was that it is both very ordinary and very extraordinary, and both at the same time. On the one hand, it's the story of a young girl who has a rather mundane job in a stationery shop and spends her days doodling with the various pens in stock and arranging the notepads while waiting for her boy to pass by. On the other hand, it's the story of a crazed runaway who can trust no-one, spends hours talking to the ghost of a girl she knew only in passing and thinks playing God is all in a day's work. The beauty of this book is the way it effortlessly flicks between the two, taking the reader down an exciting, intricate path and then whacking them back into reality a page later.
I like this book for lots of reasons, including all those things mentioned above. In addition, the writing style is fluid and accessible, and there is a galloping pace to the story that just makes you want to keep reading. However, there were a few niggles that irritated me, mostly because they left questions that were still unanswered by the very last page. The ending is subtle and though you can presume certain things from how it finishes, you cannot deduce these for certain. While this may please some readers, I prefer a more definite explanation when I come to the concluding chapters, and I thought that's what was lacking here as the book just ended in a fairly abrupt matter, with most of the threads of the story still on-going. Since I can't imagine it would ever spawn a sequel, I was slightly annoyed as I wanted things tided up nicely for me at the end, rather than left all open ended. That said, I do wonder whether I may have missed some clues while reading, and I may have to re-read it quite soon to find out.
Despite this, I would recommend the book as it really kept me hooked, and really got me thinking about lies, half-truths and the impact these can have. It reminded me of an old riddle that I used to know: if I told you the last thing I said was a lie, but the next thing I will say will be the truth, will you believe me? Molly is a character for whom the line between what is true and what is fiction is very blurred, and this results in an interesting story where you can never quite tell what's real and what's not. Until the last page I was all set to give this 5 stars, but I have docked a whole one for the ending as that's as important a part as the rest of a story to me.
This review first appeared on www.thebookbag.co.uk