I SEEM TO HAVE A THING FOR BOOKS WITH A WOMAN’S HEART that use orphan-like characters in poor and crumbling habitats. If there are small practical points of magic or folklore interwoven, then we’ll be friends for life. Shelter, by Frances Greenslade, can now be added to this list.
Shelter, set in British Colombia, Canada, is Irene’s story. Although she is absent for a good portion of the book, everything leads to her. Using the voice of her youngest daughter, Maggie, it is ultimately a simple story told through the confused eyes of a child; a story of life getting between members of a family, resulting in separation, and how it becomes an awful mystery to Maggie and her elder sister, Jenny, and the mist that lingers as they grow up until they have to know the truth.
Maggie is an ideal narrator. As the youngest, her sense of feeling wrapped in the family – and desperately wanting it to stay intact – is an interesting point from which to tell the story. She is fragile as a daughter but with a strong heart.
Maggie’s sister, Jenny, is her perfect accompaniment with a very likable and deeply drawn character full of optimism and girlishness. In fact, you get a feeling she is a character that the author knows particularly well. This is especially conveyed through the idea that Jenny would like to be a writer, as she has certainly been given the wit and charm that make her good at it. As she grows up, Jenny appears to move on with her life more than Maggie, having her own teenage girl problems to think about. Maggie is much more anchored on the separation of her family and the past, but only when Jenny hits a wall, and realises that she isn’t ready to stand alone after all, does she really follow Maggie into the hurt that has come from the large hole in the family.
Greenslade says that the inspiration for this story came from the early loss of her own mother and how that made her feel. She says that she was able to write about this subject in a more balanced way now she is older and a mother herself, and in the book you do feel a sense of compassion develop for Irene from Maggie. More than anything she wants to understand where she has gone and who she really is. As Maggie starts to realise that her mother is a whole person of her own, separate of her children, the mystery begins to unravel.
The Canadian landscape and its mythology features as quite a prominent part of this story and the descriptions were knowledgably written. A real flood of imagery comes through the pages, and it is very much this family’s perception of their surroundings and what the land means to them, how they use it, not just any old Canada that could be lived in by just anyone. This brings the reader closer to the personal ways of this little broken family.
A lot seems to happen in this book, and fast. A hundred pages go by, the writing laced with femininity, and we’ve been through so much. This doesn’t in any way feel rushed though. The sentence structures are beautiful and intricately delicate while stamping within the reader a complete faith in the author. You have time to look around and feel at home in the scenery; I like a book where I can get to know intimate details like what colour the tea towels are, the smell of the curtains and how the air feels in British Colombia on an autumn morning, as well as keeping the story at a riveting pace. I read this book really quickly, flying through the pages, intrigued by the mystery and then holding my breath for the perfect end, the only end there could be.
– Clare Brierley