Clare Morrall is so good at writing about people on the margins. In The Last of the Greenwoods, Johnny and Nick Greenwood are estranged brothers who live separately in two abandoned, adjacent railway carriages; with shared kitchen and bathroom. They are adept at avoiding each other.
Nick lives in Aphrodite on the right, Johnny in Demeter on the left. Aphrodite has horizontal blinds at the windows, open at a slant so someone inside can look out but no-one outside can see in. Demeter’s windows are unknowable with permanently drawn curtains. The carriages sit amidst trees and shrubs, hidden from the main road in Bromsgrove, West Midlands. They have been the brother’s world since they were boys. Until one day, into the lives of these emotionally separated but geographically close brothers comes a letter which reignites haunted memories. “The floor is vibrating under his feet, there’s a sensation of motion, as if the train has started to move. What’s happening? Is he slipping backwards, losing his place in the present and tumbling back to the past? How can this be?”
The letter is from their older sister, Debs; the sister who was murdered when the boys were children. As the brothers consider whether the letter is real, a fake, or a joke we learn more about their background via Zohra, the postwoman who delivered the letter. Zohra has a past of her own which she tries to forget. What brings together these seemingly disparate story strands? Trains? And what effects change in the lives of the Greenwoods and Zohra? Trains.
Slowly, with exquisite and often humorous detail, Morrall unravels the mysteries of the past, building a picture of these people’s lives. They are ordinary people but in telling their story she makes them extraordinary, reminding us that the life of each of us has a story to tell and that elements of life can be repetitive. “Are they doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again – play, replay, round and round on an endless loop?”
Running throughout is the question of verifiable identity: the woman who returns could be Deb, or Deb’s friend Bev pretending to be Debs; and who are the girls who harassed Zohra on social media, did they use their real names or not? The brothers consider how they can accept Debs, do they need evidence, DNA proof, or can they trust their instincts? And why are the two brothers not talking?
Another masterful Morrall novel. Read my reviews of After the Bombing, The Man who Disappeared, The Language of Others, The Roundabout Man, and Natural Flights of the Human Mind, all by Clare Morrall.
If you like this, try:-
‘If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go’ by Judy Chicurel
‘The Lie of the Land’ by Amanda Craig
‘Skin Deep’ by Laura Wilkinson
‘The Last of the Greenwoods’ by Clare Morrall [UK: Sceptre]
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THE LAST OF THE GREENWOODS by Clare Morrall #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3iT via @SandraDanby