How to Belong by Sarah Franklin considers what it is to belong – in a place, and within a family – and how not belonging affects one’s wellbeing. Like Franklin’s successful debut novel Shelter, How to Belong is set in the Forest of Dean, an at times stifling woodland location where community seems set beneath a magnifying glass in which everyone knows everyone else’s business and they rub along together. Except, they don’t if you don’t belong.
This is the story of two women who don’t belong; one believes she does, the other thinks she is too different. Jo Porter grew up in the forest, daughter of the local butcher, and close friends with Liam whose single mum sometimes struggled to cope. Liam grew up learning to recognise his mum’s good and bad times and what to do when the bad periods happened, knowing there was always sanctuary provided by Jo’s parents. When Jo leaves the forest for university and then to work as a lawyer, Liam stays at home, marries Kirsty and has two daughters.
Tessa is a farrier, loving her solitary job in the open air, working with horses. When her romance in Bristol with Marnie turns sour, Tessa retreats to the country and into herself, blaming her fainting fits, her memory losses and secretly afraid she is ill.
When Jo’s parents retire, Jo surprises everyone by leaving London and the law to return to the Forest and take over her parents’ business. She rents a room in Tessa’s remote cottage. Things don’t go as Jo expected. Butchering is not her natural occupation despite having practically grown up in the shop at her parents’ knees, her landlady proves herself silent and uncommunicative, and worst of all Liam seems to be giving her the cold shoulder. Meanwhile, Tessa has crashed her van and is earning barely enough to feed herself. When Jo tries to help diagnose Tessa’s illness, things don’t go according to plan. While Tessa keeps her secrets to herself, Jo doesn’t understand her own motivation in wanting to help her landlady. Neither woman appreciates the effect that their actions have on others, neither feels comfortable in the role of landlady/lodger perhaps because they are unsure of their own identity. It’s difficult to fit into a place if you’re not sure why you are there, whether you should be there, and if you are running towards or away from something.
The contemporary setting is very different from the wartime story of Shelter. This is a character study of two women lacking self-awareness who begin to understand themselves through their new friendship. When awareness arrives, it is raw and uncompromising. At times I grew impatient with each of them, perhaps because the author had to withhold some information about them in order to maintain the mysteries from their past until the end is reached. The end, when it came, felt like a rather quick shutting of the door.
The cover of How to Belong is one of my favourites of this year, but then I love trees.
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Read my review of Shelter, also by Franklin.
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
HOW TO BELONG by @SarahEFranklin #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-4Qb via @SandraDanby