Book Review : The Sound Mirror by Heidi James

The Sound Mirror by Heidi James has been bobbing around on my radar for a while now. It is published by BlueMoose Books this month and is part of their fantastic initiative to publish only women writers this year. BlueMoose have never let me down yet, and hey, it looks like they are some of the few people on the planet getting 2020 nailed!!

Everything I had heard, and indeed continue to hear, about The Sound Mirror is overwhelming positive. Twitter is alive with fantastic reviews every day and this book has created a buzz even before it has been published. Who doesn’t want to read a book like that?? So thank you Heidi and Blue Moose for my gifted copy, and spoiler alert; it’s going on the forever shelf.

Anyway, enough of me blathering, let’s get to the meat of the matter… What is The Sound Mirror all about?

This is the story of three women; Tamara, Ada, and Claire. Each story is told gradually, each interspersed with the other. Their stories are told in the third person, but in the present tense, which became very important to me as the novel progressed. Because it is through the use of the present tense that you have a sense of really getting to know these women. The writing and the way it is constructed is a window into their thoughts, preoccupations and struggles.

The three stories span different times and places. Tamara’s story in grounded in the present, with a sense of looking back. Her narrative is less linear and much more fragmented that the other women. This fractured narrative reflects the nature of Tamara’s story, adds a sense of intrigue and tension which runs throughout the novel, driving it forward. And Tamara’s story begins the novel with a blinding opening line…

She is going to kill her mother today.

The Sound Mirror – Heidi James

I mean who doesn’t want to follow that line up!!!

The other women’s stories are set over a comparable time frame. We meet them in the 1940’s and move with them through the narrative to the end of their lives. Claire is one of a large catholic Italian family, living in London, helping out with the family grocers business, falling in love and moving forwards. Ada is mixed race, leaving India at the end of British rule, the fall of the Raj. Used to a life of colour, warmth and plenty, the grey skies and constraints of a life in England are hard to adjust to.

These two women are different on many ways. There are clear differences in lifestyle, class, opportunities and outlook. But equally there are many things that bind them, both are constrained in many ways. Expectations and the judgement of society continually intervene to change the course of their lives. The frustrations they both feel in different ways about their own wishes, wants, talents and needs being ignored shape the choices they make, their interactions with others, their own mental health and ultimately future generations. Heidi James shows us how other characters perception of these women begin to colour their sense of self . How much, we are encouraged to ask, are we a product of our experiences and how far does this reach into our lives and the lives of those around us?

All three of these women are multi layered, complex and ultimately flawed. They are relatable, believable and even though they are sometimes hostile, and unsettling, as a reader we care about their narratives. These are women each with a clear voice who aren’t static in their representation. They change throughout the novel, life and experiences change them. And consequently our opinion of them changes too.

For the majority of the novel these narratives move along quite separately. Although themes and issues unite them, the characters themselves don’t interact. But then, suddenly, the narratives come together in a way that is perfect, not contrived not forced, just a reflection of the skill and care the author has displayed throughout.

Running through out this novel is an exploration of the theme of motherhood in all its forms and guises. Heidi James depicts and equally challenges the accepted societal definition of motherhood. She raises a myriad of questions throughout. What happens if you don’t want children? What gives society the right to impose motherhood and it’s impossible standards on all women, regardless of their own ambitions and inclinations? What makes a ‘good mother’, and who indeed defines what a good mother is? What is the effect of a ‘bad mother’? What does it takes to be a mother emotionally and physically? Is the balance of motherhood’s rewards and trials equal for all women, and what happens when everything becomes overwhelming? Is a mother’s love unconditional ? What do you bring from one generation to the next and is the past always going to be a defining part of you?

This book is packed with questions, considerations and empathy. It takes the traditional lot of women, grabs it by the ankles and gives it a damn good shake. At times it will make you smile, you will nod along in understanding, you might just feel uncomfortable and it will definitely ignite the fires of injustice and anger in your belly. Thank you Heidi for the chance to read this beauty. You have a winner on your hands here.

Rachel x

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