Mrs. Ranelagh is a formidable figure when she returns to England in 1998, much different from the psychologically battered and unhappy wife who moved to Hong Kong with her husband after the violent death of the only black neighbor in a street occupied by the marginally poor and uneducated whites with no tolerance for a woman of color.
Annie Butts dies soon after she looks deeply into Mrs. Ranelagh’s eyes, the police and coroner determining the cause of death accidental. But Mrs. Ranelagh doesn’t believe it’s accidental, having witnessed the taunting and cruelty of the neighbors, adults and children, the old woman staggering around the streets inebriated, a constant source of entertainment for people whose lives are all devastatingly disappointing.
When later it is revealed that Annie suffered from Tourette’s syndrome, only Mrs. Ranelagh and the woman’s council physician appreciate how the disease turned Annie into an object of mockery, her frequent bursts of indiscriminate rudeness turning everyone against her. Now, twenty years later, Mrs. Ranelagh is ready to force the police to reopen the case and bring the real culprit or culprits to justice.
In true Walters’ style, the plot is revealed in stages: Mrs. Ranelagh’s experiences, police and doctor’s reports about Annie, and the young wife’s troubles after the murder. When Mrs. Ranelagh demands an investigation for murder, the neighborhood turns on her, their wrath excessive and frightening, as though a savage beast has awoken, taken its prey, and will not be denied.
Mrs. Ranelagh knows racism is at the heart of the matter, but following chapters reveal labyrinthine factors of cause and effect: family secrets, serial infidelity, a history of violence endemic to the residents of the neighborhood, and Mrs. Ranelagh’s ultimate breakdown, both physical and psychological. Her marriage suffers greatly for her husband’s lack of understanding or compassion.
Given the circumstances, Mrs. Ranelagh is remarkable, the victim of intimidation and abandonment who goes on to raise two sons and bring her marriage back from the cusp of divorce. But not without a cost. There are dues to be paid, revenge to be savored.
With the tragic death of Annie Butts the core issue of the novel, Walters brilliantly dissects the nature of racism, including the institutional racism that allows government agencies to ignore systemic violence against people of color. Only the protagonist faces down the bitter truth.
The treatment of Mrs. Ranelagh adds another layer of discrimination, the sexism that is so obvious in the police reaction to her claims, her husband’s inability to deal with his wife’s overwhelming despair, most of the male figures determined to silence an out-of-control female. Twenty years later, she returns with an agenda: to force an investigation into Annie’s death, her evidence painstakingly gathered and irrevocable.
There are many gratifying moments when the protagonist strikes back at the past and those who wronged her. Revenge, maybe, but this is a woman shamed and humiliated who has found her voice at last and will not deny the truth for the sake of convenience, a credit to women and Annie’s memory.