Review: Once Upon a time in England (Helen Walsh)

Goodreads Summary: “A young man with shock-red hair tears through the snowbound streets of Warrington’s toughest housing estate. He is Robbie Fitzgerald, and he is running for his life – and that of his young family. In his heart, Robbie knows the odds are stacked against them. In this unbending northern town, he has married the beautiful brown nurse who once stitched up his wounds. Susheela is his Tamil princess, but in the real world the Fitzgeralds have to face up to prejudice, poverty and naked hatred from their neighbours. Now Robbie has seen a way out, and he’s sprinting to his date with destiny …” “This night starts a chain of events that will reverberate throughout this family – Robbie, Susheela, their son Vincent and unborn daughter, Ellie.” Across two decades of struggle, aspiration, achievement, misunderstandings, near-misses and shattered dreams, Helen Walsh plunges us into their lives and loves. And in the Fitzgeralds, she has created a family who will stay in your heart, long after the final page.

My Thoughts: Once upon a time in England is a story about racism and the acceptance of differences within the british society in the 70s and 80s. The whole story is about a family living in Warrington in the north of England. All family members are different from the “normal” person living in the british society at that point in time. Robbie, the father, is a musician who cannot read and who works in a factory to feed his family. Sheila, his wife, is originally from Kuala Lumpur but immigrated to Britain because of her marriage. She does not look European and is still trying to enjoy some traditions from her home country. Together, Sheila and Robbie have two children – Ellie and Vincent. Vincent is the older one and he is different than other kids as well because of his skin colour and his interest in literature. He is also gay and thus, he is not accepted in his school and is always hiding somewhere. Ellie, the second child always tries to make everything right for everyone in the family and even though her skin colour is much lighter than Vincent’s and she has less problems in school than him.

Basically, all happenings in the story are based on the rape that happens in the beginning. Sheila gets raped and does not tell Robbie about it but, of course, Robbie can recognise a difference in his wife and does not know where this is coming from. Vincent knows about the rape but is not talking to anyone either. All of them are living together, keeping secrets from each other and having their own explanations for each other’s behaviour without talking about these thoughts and feelings once.

All these misunderstandings and secrets lead to actions with which they hurt each other even more in the end. The situation of the family gets worse every year and they all veer away from each other even more throughout the years passing by even though they are all constantly trying to make it right for everybody else sacrificing their own wishes to reach this goal.

In the beginning I really did not like the book and if it would not have been for my book club meeting I would probably have stopped reading the book after 100 pages. But I forced myself to go on reading for the book club meeting and after a few more pages, the story suddenly grabbed my attention. Perhaps it was because I just accepted that it is a really intense and sad story. It was not what I was expecting to read because of the nice sounding title. It sounds like a fairy tale  but in reality it is a really sad and depressing one.

I liked it so much in the end because Helen Walsh is writing really well and  the language she uses suits the context of her story perfectly. As a reader for whom English is the second language, it is sometimes hard to understand certain parts. Especially the conversations that sometimes use the strong northern accent were barely understandable for a non native speaker. The language really made up for the sadness of the story and the feelings of all characters are described in such great detail that the reader is able to understand their feelings and actions. I also liked the choice of scenery which is really suitable for the story. The northern part of England is more industrial and thus, fits well into the story.

Nevertheless, what I did not really like is that some parts of the story are missing because twice, Helen Walsh skips a few years and goes on with the story from that point in time not explaining what has happened in the meantime. Thus some information that is needed, in my opinion, is missing and makes the story a bit incomplete.

Overall, I can really recommend this book but have to give a warning that it is intense and very negative. It makes you sad but still, it is interesting to follow the developments of the characters. In the end, I couldn’t stop reading and wanted to know how the story ends. I am not giving that away to you right now because I hope that at least some of you are going to read it. Whoever has read it already, your comments and thoughts are more than welcome!

My Rating: ★★★☆

More about Helen Walsh and her books can be found here.

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