Once Upon a Time in England

The title of Helen Walsh’s novel sounds like a fairy tale: Once Upon a Time in England. And the opening chapters feel like one—albeit one grounded in modern-day realities. When the novel opens, young crooner Robbie Fitzgerald is running around Warrington trying to make arrangements to sing for the great talent agent Dickie Vaughan. Robbie finds the musicians he need, takes the stage at St Stephen’s lounge bar, and launches into “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Vaughan reacts:

Robbie Fitzgerald had him transfixed, utterly caught up in the ferocious beauty of his voice. He had never heard a voice so visceral and honest, so needy and hungry and splintered with pain. He didn’t think it possible to transform the jarring, maudlin wail of bluegrass into something so profound and sensual. That voice planted a hankering in his groin, ripping the skin from his flesh in one violent tug. And as the smokescreen lifted, Vaughan appraised the young flame-haired minstrel with mounting disbelief. He took in the flat boxer’s nose; the wild green eyes; the litter of scars marked his face and the fading shamrock inked between his thumb and forefinger. He observed Robbie’s cheap cheesecloth shirt, his high-waisted pinstripe bags and his two-tone shoes gleaming defiantly in the spotlight, and he wondered how this crude male could radiate such beauty.

Robbie’s dreams appear to be about to come true, but his pregnant wife, Susheela, who is originally from Malaysia, waits at home with their five-year-old son, unaware of this opportunity and therefore worrying about Robbie’s absence. As Robbie stops to pick up a lavish Chinese feast for them to share together in celebration, Susheela’s mind runs wild with fear. What happens is worse than her worst imaginings. A racially motivated violent attack forces the family to put dreams aside and find a way to live in the aftermath of a nightmare.

Walsh looks in on the family at three different points in time: 1975, when the novel opens; 1981, after the family has moved to a safer area; and 1989, when the children are starting to find their own way in the world. Although the initial tragedy is not talked of much, it’s a specter that haunts the Fitzgeralds, even those in the family who do not know exactly what happened. But that’s not all there is to this story; it’s much more than a simple story of the evils of racism. We see hate that comes in many forms—homophobia, classism, and even self-loathing. 

Walsh carefully treads the line between making her characters into beaten-upon victims and engineers of their own destruction. The various Fitzgeralds suffer because of prejudice and hate, but they also suffer at their own hands. They seek solace in addictions, in material possessions, in secrecy and self-reliance, in destructive relationships. But even as the Fitzgeralds act in foolish, irresponsible, even infuriating ways, Walsh writes of them with compassion. And her compassionate tone made me care about this family.

I liked this novel very much, even though it was utterly heart-breaking. The end tore me to shreds. There are some scenes of violence, and one scene of violence against a woman is described with an uncomfortable level of detail. But to me, it never felt exploitive. And it’s also never preachy, as some “issue” novels tend to be.

This is Walsh’s second novel. Her first, Brass, apparently got a lot of attention for its shocking sexual content. It sounds like too much for me, frankly, but if others have read it, I’d be interested in your thoughts. I liked Walsh’s writing in this book very much and am sorry that it hasn’t gotten much attention.

Also reviewed at Gaskella, Reading Matters.

Because author Helen Walsh is half Malaysian, I’ll be adding a link to this review to the Diversify Your Reading blog. Check out that blog for reviews of books by other authors of color, and share your own links as well.

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10 Responses to Once Upon a Time in England

  1. Pingback: Asian European Authors « Diversify Your Reading

  2. litlove says:

    This sounds an intriguing, if difficult, book. And I had never heard of the author before.

    I reviewed Herta Muller the other day and must come and add her to the diversity blog. I’m scared of not knowing how to post right – what a wuss am I? I must grasp the nettle, etc, etc.

    • Teresa says:

      Litlove: I hadn’t heard of Walsh either, outside Annabel and Kimbofo’s reviews. But then I found several articles about her when I googled. She had a very, erm, colorful background.

  3. gaskella says:

    I’m so glad you ‘enjoyed’ the book Teresa. It wasn’t an easy read as the family went from one awful event to another not being able to help themselves, and you could feel it would end in tragedy.

    • Teresa says:

      Annabel: Enjoyed in quotation marks is quite right. I couldn’t really take pleasure in their pain, but I really admired Walsh’s skill in depicting it.

  4. Stefanie says:

    Sounds like a harsh but well-done book. I’ve never heard of the author before. I’m going to have to keep my eye out for her at the library and bookstore.

    • Teresa says:

      Stefanie: Harsh but well-done is exactly right. And I did spot her books (1 copy of each) at my local Barnes and Noble, so her work has crossed the pond.

  5. kimbofo says:

    Thanks for providing a link to my review.

    This was a heart-breaking book, wasn’t it? So many bad things seemed to happen to all of the characters, but yet they never seemed to do anything to help themselves. I pitied them, but I also felt incredibly frustrated by them.

    • Teresa says:

      Kimbofo: Yes! The characters’ actions (or inactions) were often maddening. But to me that’s what made this book work–it wasn’t just the noble victim trope. It was messy.

  6. Pingback: REVIEW: Helen Walsh – Once Upon a Time in England « The Book Affair

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