Best described as neo-Victorian novel, The Other Mrs Walker has a plot as involved as anything devised by Wilkie Collins. It begins in a wintry Edinburgh in 2010 when the body of an old woman is found in a freezing flat, and it covers, in a series of flashbacks, much of the 20th century. It is a grim story of what we now call a dysfunctional family, of child-murder and child abuse, madness, abortionists, thefts, alcoholism, poverty, creepy solicitors, missing documents, bombs falling on wartime London, the whole shooting-match. Repetitive and often wildly over-written, it is irritatingly slow at first, but, if you persevere, you are likely to find it absorbing and enjoyable.
The dead woman has a name – Mrs Walker – but nothing is known of her beyond that. There is no clue to her past, and there seem to be no family members. She has lived alone and died of natural causes with, perhaps, the help of whisky. Nineteen empty bottles are evidence of that. Margaret Penny, middle-aged, broke, and unemployed on account of dishonesty, arrives in icy Edinburgh on the night bus from London. She heads for her mother’s flat with, as a peace offering, a quarter-bottle of rum.
Her welcome is as cold as the weather, but she is reluctantly given a box-room full of junk to sleep in. She must find a job, and is recommended by an acquaintance of her mother’s to a government agency charged with providing the paperwork required in cases of deaths like Mrs Walker’s. Her job is to find out who the dead woman was and whether there is any surviving family. So her quest begins.
The organisation of the novel, with these flashbacks to the years between the wars and their often vivid accounts of the Walker family, means that the reader is always several steps ahead of Margaret. This is how we know of dead babies, their mother’s consequent madness, and the three surviving sisters, Clementine, Ruby, and Barbara, who are unofficially adopted by the midwife and abortionist, Mrs Penny, long before Margaret does.
This might be risky but Paulson-Ellis teases out her plot intriguingly, divulging information gradually and laying some false trails, which keep the reader’s interest alive. In any case the squalor of life in the Penny household is compellingly realised and the wartime scenes are very well done. The author has a real gift for creating and presenting repellently corrupt characters.
Margaret may be the heroine and her pursuit of the case is admirably dogged. Paulson-Ellis, however, refrains from making her a likeable or even sympathetic character. I daresay the author became fond of her, as novelists usually do of the people they imagine into being, but it is clear that her misfortunes are her own fault. Indeed, there is a fine absence of sentimentality in the novel.
This is a first novel and it has some of the faults typical of the first novel. It is self-indulgent and would have benefited from more stringent editing to cut out repetitions, especially those concerning various objects which have both a symbolic and narrative importance, but which are much less interesting or significant than is, presumably, intended.
There are many scenes that continue after their point has been made and would be more effective if they were shorter. But publishers like long novels and are often reluctant to advise authors to make cuts. Then the ending is unsatisfactory because it is unconvincing. A novel which deals persuasively with much that is grim and painful suffers if it ends with a genie leaping out of the box simply to round things up.
Nevertheless, there is much more here to admire and enjoy than to criticise adversely.
Paulson-Ellis has a fine talent for rendering the seamy side of life – the character of the delinquent middle sister Ruby is splendidly done and the creepy solicitor has the air of the Victorian crime novel. The author shows a keen understanding of criminal pathology; there are touches worthy of Ruth Rendell.
In short, whatever one’s reservations, this is a notable debut.