What She Never Told Me | Kate McQuaile | 2016 | Quercus | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book
Over twenty years ago, Louise Redmond left her home in Ireland to start a new life in London. But now her mother Marjorie is dying and Louise has returned. As Louise sits by her bedside, holding Marjorie’s hand, she knows that this may be the last chance she has to learn about her father. Louise has a name – David Prescott – but that’s it. Marjorie has always refused to tell her more. After all, Marjorie was an unmarried mother in Ireland during the late 1960s. No ‘single mothers’ in those days, only ‘unmarried mothers’. But as Louise sits and reminisces to Marjorie during her last hours, Louise also knows she can’t raise the subject of a nightmare that haunts her from her early childhood. And so, when Marjorie dies, the relationship between mother and daughter becomes eternally unfulfilled.
But when Louise has Marjorie’s house emptied and renovated, the builder, a good friend, discovers a small box hidden away. Inside it lie clues to the past and lead Louise on a trail into her history and that of her mother. These are difficult days for Louise. Not only must she contend with what she learns – and there are shocks in store – but she must also deal with her own marriage which, despite so much love, is hanging together by a thread that grows more frayed by the day.
What She Never Told Me is a beautifully written, melancholic novel that tells Louise’s story in the present tense and in her own words. This isn’t a style I’m generally keen on but it’s done very well here, largely because it’s important that we share Louise’s doubts and worries as well as her excitement or distress in what she discovers. She’s such a sympathetic character and, despite her sadness, I warmed to her immediately. This isn’t a light novel but there are little moments of relief, particularly when Louise is with her friends or, when things are going well, with her husband Sandy.
One aspect of the novel that I enjoyed especially is that nothing is too black and white. There’s a message here that relationships shouldn’t be thrown away too easily. They need to be worked at and forgiveness is, unfortunately, a necessary part of love. But are there some things that are simply unforgiveable? The mystery of the novel has a power that made What She Never Told Me a compelling read that I didn’t want to put down but this is definitely only one part of the book and it co-exists with Louise’s self-reflection on her past and what she must do to find peace.
The Ireland setting is gorgeous. Although Louise spends her time moving backwards and forwards between London and Ireland, it’s the Irish sections that enthralled me the most. There is such a warmth to the people that we meet there and it’s no surprise that Louise has a difficult choice to make between London and Ireland.
What She Never Told Me might be a sad and melancholic tale but it is beautifully written, with a mystery that builds and builds. This is Kate McQuaile’s debut novel and it is a strong one. I look forward to reading many more of her novels in the future.