I review The Mountain in My Shoe by Louise Beech. Many thanks to Orenda Books for providing The Bandwagon with a review copy.
A missing boy. A missing book. A missing husband. A woman who must find them all to find herself. On the night Bernadette finally has the courage to tell her domineering husband that she’s leaving, he doesn’t come home. Neither does Conor, the little boy she’s befriended for the past five years. Also missing is his lifebook, the only thing that holds the answers. With the help of Conor’s foster mum, Bernadette must face her own past, her husband’s secrets and a future she never dared imagine in order to find them all. Exquisitely written and deeply touching, The Mountain in My Shoe is both a gripping psychological thriller and a powerful and emotive examination of the meaning of family … and just how far we’re willing to go for the people we love.
Described as a psychological thriller, The Mountain In My Shoe is more a work of explorative fiction, which delves into what we mean by the word “family”. As we know, families come in all shapes and sizes, with some members stepping into different roles, others fulfilling more than one role, some related by blood and others not. Defining a family is difficult, as there can be so many variables. Louise Beech explores this idea of broadening your definition of what “family” truly means.
Bernadette is married to a man who can be cruel and abusive. Locked away in their flat, focused on mundane tasks and not angering her husband, she decides one night to leave. She’s scared, of course, but also courageous, brave in the face of his coming anger. But he doesn’t come home. Then she learns that Conor, the boy in care who she’s befriended, is also missing. And so is his lifebook.
A lifebook is something that is presented to a child who went through the care system when he or she is deemed old enough to read it. The people who came into contact with the child – foster parents, social workers, their birth parents – write in the lifebook, detailing their lives and how they know them, adding pictures and other tidbits. It sounds like a wonderful idea, and is something I hope really does happen. Being in care is no picnic, but Conor seems to have found an excellent foster carer, one he enjoys being with, and who loves having him.
As the story progresses, we discover that Conor’s birth mother never had an easy life. Exposed to poverty, neglect, and prostitution from a young age, she found herself unable to cope every time she fell pregnant. All of her children, apart from the youngest, went into care, with one of them passing away as a toddler. A family built on sadness and loss, broken, but not without hope. Conor’s mother, despite her struggles with mental illness, seems to really care about her children, and this is evident all the way through.
The pace picks up as Bernadette searches desperately for Conor, and when we are introduced to Conor’s own point-of-view, it all becomes decidedly darker. Without giving too much away, there is further tragedy, and pain, as Conor and Bernadette become even more inexplicably linked. But there’s also light, and hope, and more chances at becoming a family.
I did figure out the twist fairly early on, but that didn’t make The Mountain In My Shoe any less enjoyable. It was heartbreaking and tragic, but also beautiful. Beech writes of this emotive subject with a steady hand, and truly brings her wonderful characters to life. A must read.