The Herald

‘A painfully gripping tale… one of the strongest debuts of the year.’

Review: The Other Mrs Walker, by Mary Paulson-Ellis

5 Mar 2016 / Lesley McDowell

The Other Mrs Walker
Mary Paulson-Ellis
(Mantle, £12.99)

Review by Lesley McDowell

SOMETIMES, when a person slips through the net, his or her life can only be told through a series of objects. That’s the premise for Mary Paulson-Ellis’s debut novel, which begins with the death of an old woman alone in an Edinburgh flat and, in the absence of a paper trial to identify her, tries to anchor her to reality by other means.

Paulson-Ellis has been compared to Kate Atkinson for her time-shifting debut, a structure which, it has to be said, is handled impressively well here with all the assurance of an expert hand. But Atkinson is kinder to her characters, especially the male ones, and by extension kinder to us, than Paulson-Ellis, who rather bravely populates her novel with women who suffer and men who cause the suffering. Although a few women manage to cause suffering, too, just in case the child-molesting, women-imprisoning, family-abandoning, adulterous, amoral chaps aren’t quite enough.

From the start, Paulson-Ellis shows that she means not to let us wander off, and she certainly gives an almost painfully gripping tale as a result. Margaret is 47, the cast-off girlfriend of a married man who’s lost her job in London and is now back in her mother’s poky Edinburgh flat.

There’s not much love lost between Margaret and Barbara, her mother, but she decides to stay a little longer when her mother’s church friend points her in the direction of a job, chasing the families of those who die alone.

A woman known as Mrs Walker has recently been found dead in her flat. Margaret has very little to go on, except the few items left behind in the old woman’s flat: an uneaten orange, several empty bottles of whisky, a fox fur, an emerald dress form another era, scraps of papers with some girls’ names on them. From this, she begins slowly to piece together some kind of identity for Mrs Walker, where she lived before she moved to Edinburgh, and so on.

At the same time, a parallel narrative is telling us more of what Margaret will find out. It’s to Paulson-Ellis’s great credit that she keeps the tension going as we learn far more than Margaret ever will. We see a nervous, expectant father, Alfred, in 1925, with his young daughter, Clementine, as he waits for his wife, Dorothea, to give birth upstairs to twins. They’re not wealthy and work is scarce; we see them again when a tragedy takes place, another set of twins is born, and Dorothea loses her mind. Alfred can’t cope; he appoints a housekeeper Mrs Penny to look after his wife and his children as he scarpers, never to return.

Mrs Penny, alas, is probably the worst woman in the world to put in charge of a family. Paulson-Ellis focuses on the seedy underbelly of poverty, what it means to be a defenceless young girl at the mercy of adults who simply want to exploit you. She captures the greyness of an Edinburgh winter superbly well; she portrays the desperation and colourlessness of pre and post-war London even better. The grime is palpable, the lack of power inescapable.

But Clementine does try to escape it, as do her twin sisters. It’s the escape that Margaret is now tracing, so many decades later, as she tries to piece together Mrs Walker’s life. It’s clear very early on that Margaret is, of course, unknowingly tracing her own family history, and this plot contrivance is possibly Paulson-Ellis’s greatest risk, greater than the time-shifts, which can set all sorts of traps for a less confident writer. She does attempt, nearer the end, to ease the suspension of disbelief she places on the reader with this part of the plot, but for some it may be just too neatly tied to be truly convincing.

What convinces are her descriptions of cities in the winter, her portrayals of women who do each other down when they should be shoring each other up, her spiky prose style that won’t comfort you in a story that maybe stresses too much darkness. A little light wouldn’t have done, in the end, too much harm, to what is nevertheless one of the strongest debuts of the year.