England, 1976. Mrs. Creasy is missing and the Avenue is alive with whispers. The neighbors blame her sudden disappearance on the heat wave, but ten-year-olds Grace and Tilly aren’t convinced. As the summer shimmers endlessly on, the girls decide to take matters into their own hands. Inspired by the local vicar, they go looking for God—they believe that if they find Him they might also find Mrs. Creasy and bring her home.
Spunky, spirited Grace and quiet, thoughtful Tilly go door to door in search of clues. The cul-de-sac starts to give up its secrets, and the amateur detectives uncover much more than ever imagined. As they try to make sense of what they’ve seen and heard, a complicated history of deception begins to emerge. Everyone on the Avenue has something to hide, a reason for not fitting in.
In the suffocating heat of the summer, the ability to guard these differences becomes impossible. Along with the parched lawns and the melting pavement, the lives of all the neighbors begin to unravel. What the girls don’t realize is that the lies told to conceal what happened one fateful day about a decade ago are the same ones Mrs. Creasy was beginning to peel back just before she disappeared.
This was one of the last books I read just before Christmas and it immediately rocketed up my list to be my Book of the Year. Quite simply I loved everything about it. I knew I was in for a great read when I started highlighting passages – always a good sign. The above blurb tells you all you need to know about the plot, but what it can’t tell you is just how delicious the writing is. From summing up characters:-
Early widowhood had forced her to weave a life from other people’s remnants, and she had baked and minded and knitted herself into a glow of indispensability (Mrs Morton)
to personifying actions:-
My Mother looked at him and did loud staring. Thankfully the sound of the loud staring was interrupted by the front doorbell.
to capturing a mood:-
She sounded like someone who had won a competition that she had never really wanted to enter in the first place.
to perfectly capturing the things you heard as a child:-
Have you gone to China for that tea, Brian?
I could go on, but I’ll restrain myself. Needless to say the book is full of perfectly crafted phrases that accurately describe an action or an individual, or evoke a mood/feeling.
The characters that inhabit the book are perfectly drawn, and in a few phrases we feel we ‘know’ them, though of course what we think we know is not always the reality, but often someone else’s perception. Each of the residents has a story to tell and often a secret of their own that colours their perceptions of others. The thing that unites them is their distrust and dislike of Walter Bishop, the reclusive resident of No. 11. But as Tilly perceptively states, ‘the world is full of goats and sheep. You just have to try and work out which is which’. My favourite characters without doubt are Grace and Tilly. Grace strolls through the book with a knowing innocence and confidence that only a 10-year-old can possess, while Tilly has a quieter, balancing quality and wisdom. Between them they often unknowingly highlight the truths and facts that an adult ceases to see. They are a joy to meet.
In addition to the mysterious story line and great characters, the other element that really brought the book to life for me was it’s time setting. I was a teenager in the long hot summer of 1976 (though I still maintain that it bypassed Hull). The cultural references are spot on, from what was on the TV, what was being eaten, what we were wearing and what a 10 year was doing. Which 10-year-old (or 18-year-old!) didn’t love highlighting what they’d like to buy in the Kay’s catalogue.
In short this is a book that just has to be read, for me it was sheer perfection and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is engaging, witty, warm and full of heart. As a debut novel this will no doubt garner a queue of people clamouring for the next one.
I received a review copy via NetGalley