Book review: Paula Daly’s ‘Just what kind of mother are you?’

16 Apr

pauladalybookjacket250Reading’s my ultimate relaxation but I find that I like distinctly different styles of book depending on what else is going on around me. When I’m working, and focused, I like my reading to challenge me, to give me something to get my teeth into and to throw up knotty problems or moral conundrums to debate. But when I’m on holiday, or having any other break from work, I like my reading to flow around me like a stream flows round a rock, easily and without obstruction.

So I was very excited to have the chance from the very good people at Mumsnet to review Paula Daly’s ‘What Kind of Mother Are You Anyway?’. What a superb plot premise. Just reading the synopsis sent a chill down my spine, and the way a normal, could-be-any-of-us, too-much-going-on-struggling-through working parent’s day moved inexorably towards disaster was carefully planned and very well written. As a concept, the storyline pulled at what is surely one of every mother’s deepest fear: that one day all those plates you’re juggling will come crashing down, and the problem is, when you’re a parent, there aren’t any plates you can afford to drop… Being responsible for the loss of someone else’s child, the mix of relief, horror, guilt for the relief, guilt for the action… These emotions are well expressed in the opening pages and Daly draws a fine line between sympathy for and frustration with Lisa, allowing us to feel both and revel in their contrasting and contradictory natures. This is very clever, and the character of Lisa was, for me, the most well-drawn in the novel by a country mile. She felt like a real person, we were right inside her head and it was – at times uncomfortably – easy to identify with her.
By contrast, I felt the characterisation of some of the other players in the drama was sketchy and relatively unformed. It never became clear to me if this was because we were seeing them through Lisa’s eyes – and this could indeed be so, since the policewoman, DC Joanne Aspinall, the only other character whose perspective we truly see events from, although in the third not the first person, is another nicely-constructed individual who we feel we get to know to an extent throughout the course of the novel.

The storyline alone was more than sufficient to keep me reading – this book is a proper page-turner, particularly as the main plot runs in parallel with an additional storyline, cleverly interwoven and leading the reader on their own investigation into Lucinda’s disappearance – about horrific abuse of other young teenage girls, and a shadowy, clearly psychotic criminal – you really want to know what happens next and how the plots together will unfold. I’m not open to spoiler alerts here so won’t write more about the way the storylines do work together; suffice to say this is one of the best elements of the book, with Daly tightly controlling the reader’s emotions and rate of discovery.
With a storyline as compelling as this, perhaps it might have proved frustrating if there had been plot breaks for description – but it’s hard to tell, since scene-setting, mood-engendering description within the book was pretty sparse. And with the novel set in the Lake District, I can’t help feeling that despite the pace the novel sets itself, this relative lack of a sense of place is something of a shame. The contrast between the picture-postcard Lake scenery and the horror of a missing child within that vast expanse of wilderness could have added to the tension and created a greater atmosphere of fear and foreboding, which instead to be maintained relied on main character Lisa’s regular emotion-focused updates, referring either to her state of mind or to that of Kate, the missing girl’s mother; or evident within DC Aspinall’s increasingly negative musings on the potential outcome of the case as time passed and Lucinda remained absent.

Through this lack of description, at times the novel reads like a TV script, a clear play to TV drama where the scene-setting is done effectively by what’s filmed and what the viewer sees. No description necessary, as it’ll be added in when the drama’s brought to life. The characterisation of DC Aspinall adds to this sensation. While I enjoyed reading about her and was interested in her and sympathetic towards her, the character was created through small clues, and as a result only partially built, which for me led to an underlying sense that this holding-back was intentional because she would be further developed in subsequent novels within a ‘DC Aspinall’ series. This isn’t a bad thing, but it meant that she remained something of an enigma throughout, with no resolution to one of the ongoing sub-plots, the difficult decision she is in the process of making regarding her breast reduction and the intense discomfort and embarrassment that the current size of her breasts causes her. I was sympathetic towards her; with a sense of admiration that she did such a difficult and active job with this level of physical difficulty, and couldn’t help feeling that in Daly’s mind, there’s more to come regarding this – it’s only the beginning. I hope I’m right on this…
At the end of the day, however, this was a book which had me gripped from the start and kept me gripped right through to the abrupt, startling and very well thought-through ending – an ending that left me with a real sense that Daly has an ongoing plan for these characters, more for them to deliver.
To go back to my image of reading at the start of this review, ‘Just What Kind of Mother Are You?’ is a straightforward holiday read, an unchallenging page turner with a story that flows uninterrupted around the reader and works very well taken as just that – a cracking good read. I would definitely recommend it, especially for summer holiday chill-out reading.

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