Once Upon a Time In England
Helen Walsh
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Buy *Once Upon a Time In England* by Helen Walshonline

Once Upon a Time In England
Helen Walsh
Canongate US
366 pages
September 2008
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Walsh’s poignant novel is set in Warrington, England, from 1975 to 1989. Talented young singer Robbie Fitzgerald stands on the cusp of stardom when events literally conspire to shatter his dream in a heinous act of violence that strikes at home while Robbie is basking in the exuberant accolades of an adoring crowd.

Returning home filled with the glow of his performance and the positive reaction of a music producer, the news is stillborn on his lips when confronted by what has conspired in his absence. Robbie’s wife, Susheela, a Malaysian who came to England for a better life and found a husband, has been the victim of a hate crime, her advanced pregnancy and small son sending Susheela into paroxysms of fear. How can Robbie leave her alone and pursue a career when his wife is now terrified of her own shadow?

His shock of bright red hair, translucent white skin and wonderful voice might have delivered Robbie and his family from the obscurity of the working poor, but with changed circumstances, dreams are cast aside, his wife barely able to function until 1981, when the family moves to a better neighborhood: “What hurt most was the gradual grinding down of any magic in their lives.”

Now they are four: Robbie, Susheela (who changes her name to Sheila), Vincent and Ellie. But this one pivotal night has altered all their futures. Robbie endures a cycle of drudgery; Sheila hides behind a quest for material goods and social acceptance in spite of the color of her skin; young Vincent, the brunt of his schoolmates mockery, fears the contempt of his peers, unable to navigate the treacherous school days; and the ebullient Ellie, too young to identify her family’s unhappiness, lives for daily adventure and her father’s rapt attention.

Each character must find his own way through a world made more difficult by race, class and unresolved issues. Sheila exists in a bubble of her own imagination, forever a victim of the past, both yearning and defeated. Who can blame such a woman for failing her family? (Yet Robbie and the children - and the reader - do.)

With no frame of reference for dealing with the violence found in her first home with Robbie, Sheila seeks refuge in a man plagued with the loss of his most treasured dreams. Left to their own resources, Vincent and Ellie fall prey to the world’s distractions, their family reflecting society’s inequities, each parent sidetracked by personal disappointment. Walsh navigates this treacherous territory with sensitivity and insight, the fragile hopes and plans of a family in distress, lost to one another as they explore the geography of heartbreak.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Luan Gaines, 2008

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