Told as a flashback, readers can see where the denouement of this book will take place, but not as yet why the narrator is where she is: trying to sneak onto the ferry from England (or rather Wales) to Ireland.
As the flashback begins, Holly Hogan, fourteen, is living in Templeton House, awaiting foster care placement. She’s reasonably happy where she is–she’s got two mates with whom she stravages around London, and she adores her “key”1 worker, Miko. However, Miko is looking for work elsewhere and Holly is going to go to Fiona and Ray Aldredge in Tooting Bec.
Holly is unable to bear living with this pair of too too earnest wholesome Londoners, whom she believes to be only replacing the child they cannot have with a second-best ready-made child who needs a home. She finds an ash-blonde wig hidden away in the bottom of a dresser drawer in her new home, and invents an alter-ego for herself, Solace, a tough and independent seventeen-year-old girl. She steals what cash she can–twenty-four pounds sounds a lot to a fourteen-year-old though an adult can see how pitifully small the amount is–and heads for Ireland.
Holly dreams of running away to join her mother in Ireland, where Bridget has gone to escape her partner…or has she? We learn tidbits about Holly’s life with her mother in “the sky house” alternating with descriptions of her flight from London across to the ferry landing.
Twenty-four pounds doesn’t go nearly as far as Holly expects it to, never mind the problems that a fourteen-year old faces even if others believe her to be seventeen. Her flight involves not only a bus trip to Oxford, where she is mistaken for a student, but hitchhiking–her rides include a vegan truck driver with a load of cheese who, when he finds out that it’s her birthday, buys her a strawberry spongecake with pretend candles–and sneaking aboard the night train to the ferry landing, hiding in the bathroom when it seems likely that someone will come around to collect tickets. She arrives at the ferry landing, having left her “lizard” bag aboard the train, just as Jane Eyre leaves her trunk aboard the train fleeing from Mr. Rochester2, and does manage to secrete herself in the back of what would be called an SUV in the States, and is taken aboard the ferry…only to get locked in as the owners leave their car.
It is here that she dredges up the last missing suppressed piece of her memories of childhood: her mother did not leave Holly in order to flee for Ireland escaping the abusive man in her life, she abandoned Holly in order to go after the man who was her drug supplier and her pimp, pausing only to call Social Services anonymously to inform them that Holly was alone in the apartments. It is at this point on the ferry that she turns herself in to the crew of the ferry, before she sets foot on Irish soil, and is taken back to the safety of a genuinely loving family, the Aldreges.
Oh, and the wig? It’s the one that Fiona Aldredge wore while she was herself suffering through the treatment for the cancer which rendered her unable to have children.
In the beginning, Holly comes across as a terribly self-centered girl, oblivious of the emotional needs of others. Bear with her. As we learn more about her background, readers may…not necessarily warm up to her but at least view her with more compassion. In some ways, this struck me as a more objective depiction of a girl who’d emerged from a disastrous situation no more intact than Shell in A Swift Pure Cry. (and like other reviewers, I appreciate that while there were a couple of creeps and creepy people, on the whole the people whom Holly encountered were good: they did what they did because they wanted to, expecting nothing in return.)
Published after Dowd’s death, I’m assuming that this was at least in part edited by another author though perhaps to a lesser extent than Ness’s work on A Monster Calls. Certainly the language here strikes me as being somewhat different from A Swift Pure Cry and Bog Child, though that may be as much because it’s being told from the perspective of a child who’s grown up in London rather than one from Ireland, as it is because it’s been edited (finished) by a different author. This may be a harder book to read than A Swift Pure Cry as there’s much less of a fairy tale aspect to Holly’s memories of her life with her mother than Shell’s meanderings through rural Ireland.
1variant on social worker who lives-in at the home where Holly lived