Orenda Books, 23 November 2019 (e) 23 January 2020 (PB)
PB, e, 303pp
I'm grateful to Orenda Books and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for a free advance copy of The Home and for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.
This is my first blogtour of 2020 (Happy New Year to all the readers and bloggers out there!) and indeed The Home was my first read of the year - and suitably so. While the book is set around Christmas, it's a dark and sobering corrective to mince pies, tinselitis and tinkling bells.
When the body of a pregnant, fifteen-year-old girl is discovered in a churchyard on Christmas morning, the community is shocked, but unsurprised. For she lived in The Home, the residence of three young girls, whose violent and disturbing pasts have seen them cloistered away...
One girl is dead.
Another is found embracing her, stunned, unable or unwilling to give any coherent account of what's happened.
The third had long retreated into her own silent world.
As the police and the social workers at the care home try to unpick what has been going on, we're made privy to the personal stories of the three girls and see just how deep are the roots of what happened that Christmas Eve - and how wide the guilt goes.
I should say first that this is a very dark story indeed. Stovell's writing is compulsive, her story urgent and important, but there are some very, very hard things here. Each of the three young women at the centre of the story - Hope, Annie and Lara - has experienced tragedy and death in her own personal life. Each has been victim of abuse (physical, sexual or emotional: sometimes all three). At times this makes for very challenging reading - while Stovell avoids explicit details of what has been done to the girls, some will find this material difficult and there were times when I simply had to put the book
That said, The Home is not simply layers of misery. The three girls are far more than just victims, they are brave, resilient and well rounded young women with a lot to say. This is a complex and tangled story, with a teasing narrative structure. Stovell gives us a "present day" thread from the perspective of the girl found alive in the graveyard... and observations from the one who was found dead, leading into both of them telling their stories about their separate, earlier lives and their time together in The Home. I'd hesitate to call it a ghost story - there is no supernatural angle here - but this clever structuring does allow us, the readers, to get to various places and hear different voices without the insertion of an all-knowing narrator (and therefore allowing the possibility that these viewpoints are partial and may not be completely reliable).
They are, as I have said, dark stories. One girl is the daughter of a sex worker, groomed almost from birth to follow the same path, which she is forced to do at the age of twelve. She suffers family tragedy and is controlled by a pimp. Another of the three has a psychologically - and physically - abusive mother and only gets by begging food from the local foodbank. The third has seen murder. The care system struggles - bluntly it fails - to cope with the needs of these girls. While the manager of the home, Helen, tries her best amidst a chaotic and uncaring system there are neither the financial nor the emotional resources available. (I would have liked to have heard more of Helen's story, she seems like an interesting character herself but only remains on the margins). In the midst of this, Annie and Hope find some sort of bond, some sort of love, but it's one that only complicates their position and - with the inevitable threat of being separated - raises new fears.
That relationship is though at the core of this book. I think Stovell succeeds brilliantly in showing us the inner lives of all the girls, not just their suffering but their selves inside that, their hopes and regrets.
'For the first time ever, I wanted my mother. No. Not my mother. A mother...'
Stovell shows how these brilliant, strong young women have been forced, at an impossibly early age, to carry burdens that would floor most adults, burdens nobody should have to bear alone, still less children, and how - for the most part - they bear those, their simple survival being a triumph. In all of this there is so little help, with them being grateful for even small gestures. I found myself getting very angry that there are women in situations like this (there is righteous anger behind every word of this novel and Stovell acknowledges this in discussing the research behind the book) and that the services provided for them are so truncated, so obtuse, so ungracious.
It's not a book with an impossible, happy ending. Nobody waves a wands and transforms the lives of these girls and there is I think no inspiration in the fact that they prove so resilient.
It is a crying scandal and there is, at best, a grimy, polluted kind of justice served up.
Welcome to 2020.
The blogtour continues with some super bloggers - see the poster below. You can read more about The Home on the Orenda Books website here, and buy or pre-order the book from your local bookshop, from Hive Books (which supports local bookshops), from Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones, WH Smith or Amazon.