Sunday, 16 August 2015
Review: Life, Death & Vanilla Slices by Jenny Eclair
Mothers should never have favourites...
I borrowed Life, Death and Vanilla Slices from my local library on a whim. I'd heard Jenny Eclair speaking on BBC Radio 2 about her new book, Moving, and I'd thought it sounded pretty good. The paperback isn't out until December, however, and the hardback has a queue of 28 people wanting to borrow it from the library, so I went for something else by the same author.
I'd only known Jenny Eclair from TV and radio, equating her voice and face with comedy and satire, and I had had no idea she was an author, so I didn't know what to expect when I began to read Life, Death and Vanilla Slices. From the first few lines, however, I was hooked.
This is, to use a clichéd term, a page turner. I was desperate to know what happened next in the life - such as it was - of Jean Collins, and her daughters Anne and (the favourite) Jess. Each new chapter brought smiles, laughs, and no small amount of tears - the descriptions of a mother watching her children grow until they no longer need her went deep.
The book is funny. Definitely funny. But it is heart wrenchingly, gasp-inducingly sad too. That's because it feels utterly real. This could have happened to your grandmother. Your next door neighbour. The woman sitting next to you on the bus. And, because some secrets are meant to be kept, even when they weigh you down for life, no one will ever know.
The premise of the book is fairly straightforward: an elderly woman is knocked down by a car and ends up in a coma. Her eldest daughter feels she should travel from London to Blackpool to be with her. Both of them reminisce (Jean in her coma, Anne in her life) about what has brought them to this point. The memories start off pleasantly enough, but in every family there are problems and secrets, and we soon find that Jean's second daughter, Jess, is missing (and has been for almost 30 years). But that's not the half of it. There is so much more, yet none of it feels melodramatic or like something from a TV soap; the most clever and wonderful part of this book is that it all seems absolutely real.
I didn't know how the ending would hit me - I had hoped for happy, at least happy for now if not happily ever after, but as the pages began to grow fewer, I had to begin believing that not everything would be resolved. At least not in a fairytale kind of way. I don't want to give anything away, but I was in bits, sobbing to myself on the sofa when I finally closed this book. Partly because the ending was sad, in a bitter-sweet and terrible way, but also because it could have been different. If the characters had done one thing, just one thing different in their lives, everything would have changed. For the better? Perhaps. For the worse? Who knows? But the point is, there were missed opportunities to speak, to act, to live. And that is the saddest thing of all.