Orenda Books, 23 June 2022
Available as: PB, 276pp, audio, e
Source: purchased e-copy
Today I'm pleased to be joining the Random Things blogtour for Nothing Else by Louise Beech. Many thanks to Orenda Books and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part.
I am always very pleased to see that a new book by Louise is on the way. They always grab me, and Nothing Else lived up to my expectations. At the same time heartbreaking, uplifting and compulsively readable, I hope it'll grab you, too.
Heather is a piano teacher, a rather solitary woman who lives - perhaps not for her music, but with it. She's not a total loner - her stepparents are dead, she was married and has parted amicably from her ex-husband - but there is a space in her life, which Beech slowly shows us was left by Harriet, the sister from whom Heather was parted in childhood.
On an impulse, Heather decides to take the job of pianist on a luxury liner. It's most unlike her to do such a spur of the moment thing, but she looks forward to the change and to the opportunity for some reflection. She will cruise across the Atlantic and then travel to the Caribbean, with a stop in New York. It seems exciting, different, a chance to explore a different lifestyle - and Heather is very nervous. But she's recently received the files Social Service kept on her, and hopes that she may find a clue there about Harriet - what happened to her, and, perhaps, where she is now.
Heather's own memories have many gaps. Her childhood wasn't easy, and doesn't make easy reading. There are scenes here of domestic abuse, less the gross, physical side than the creeping atmosphere of dread and restraint, the miasma cast over the girls' early life by their controlling father. It is effective and horrible, and the contrast with the more or less carefree life aboard ship (I really loved the sense of place and community that Beech gives to this) only makes things seem, somehow, even darker. Heather wants to know about Harriet, but one senses that there may be ominous secrets to come out.
One of the things I love about Louise Beech's books is this ability to create menace and depth in situations which nevertheless remain, as it were, bounded and even appealing. The little world aboard a ship is a good example of that. Heather may have spare time to relive her past but she has so much to do, so much to explore, and a public role in the ship - she has to be be there at the right times, a smile on her face, attractively dressed and ready to entertain - so that the buried memories which begin to emerge can't, they just can't, take over completely. So we get a kind of mystery, a deepening of our understanding of Heather's personality, demonstrated through her love for her mother, through her family's tragedy and in her relationship with Mr Hibbert, who taught her and Harriet piano (his story, glimpsed in passing, is rather sad). But it's demonstrated most of all, perhaps, though Beech's use of Heather's music, her choices of what to play and the descriptions of how she does that.
Heather doesn't particularly try to challenge the passengers with her repertoire, but she plays with great feeling and there's a haunting quality to how this is explained in the story, reminding me that Beech's stories often use art or performance to get over the depths of what people are experiencing. That is heightened when Heather plays "Nothing Else", a piece in two parts which she and her sister composed together when their father was at his worst. Heather has never been able to play Harriet's part, pointing at the void left behind, but she is something of a hit playing her own and even becomes a minor online sensation as the music is recorded and shares across social media.
I don't want to say too much more about what happens in the story, because, while the general course of it might be something you'll guess, the detailed working out isn't. Rather it's wrapped round the mystery about Harriet's disappearance. And other mysteries too. Beech, as ever, is queen of the taut, suspenseful plot. This isn't a crime novel (at least not in its present-day parts) or thriller, but Beech still serves up a few red herrings and a few clues as to what was going on - and keeps us guessing about exactly how things will turn out.
This is a story, at its root, of love and loss, and lost time, but one that testifies to the power of truth and the endurance of love. As a complex piece of music moves towards its resolution, so Nothing Else explores its themes, eventually presenting Heather with a very different outcome from what she might have expected - and forcing some choices on her.
Another excellent book from this author - one that I think may just be her best yet (and that's a high bar).
For more information about Nothing Else, see the Orenda Books website here or take in the other stops on the tour, listed on the poster below. To buy Nothing Else, visit your local bookshop, or get it online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon