Scottish Review of Books: Once Upon a Time in England
If there’s one thing you can say about Helen Walsh, it’s that she doesn’t shy away from the brutal realities of life – although twenty pages into this, her second novel, I heartily wished she did. Portraying a vicious rape in all its repellent detail is never going to make for easy reading, but this scene takes a while to recover from. Susheela is a young girl from Kuala Lumpur, living in a council estate in Warrington in the late Seventies. Heavily pregnant by her husband, Robbie, a factory worker with ambitions to be a professional singer, she is raped by a racist gang on the night he is signed up by an important talent spotter
The rape brings on the birth of her child, but it’s the end of Robbie’s hopes and of their relationship. As they get older and move away from the council estate, the couple struggle to bring up their son, Vincent, the next generation’s victim of racial abuse, and daughter, Ellie, who wants to fight everyone. Walsh’s style is uneven throughout, veering from the almost over written to the careless and even lazy. But when she’s on top form, the prose is truly eye-catching.
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It's the coldest night of 1975, and Robbie Fitzgerald is running for his life and for that of his young family. 'Once Upon a Time in England' spans two decades of struggle, aspiration, achievement, misunderstandings, near-misses and shattered dreams. Helen Walsh's first novel, 'Brass' was the winner of a Betty Trask Prize.
Reviewed in Scottish Review of Books Volume 4 Number 1