Sunday, 7 May 2017


3.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: It was a submission to Rosie Amber's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

I was not sure how to review this book at first, because it's a strange one; my opinion of it varied so much, all the way through.  It's a long novella (or a very short novel - I am sure it is no longer than 50K words, maximum). 

Warning: this review includes plot spoilers.  

Set in northern Italy, the story opens with Pietro, heartbroken over the loss of his wife, Maria, who has just died from cancer.  It then goes back to Maria's childhood in Sicily, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Maria lived in a small village, where life rolled by at the slow pace of fifty years before, and the Roman Catholic church and the family were the main focus.  I adored every word of this part; it's beautifully written, and I felt so sad when Maria's mother died, even though I'd met her only briefly.  Yes, the characterisation is that good.  The atmosphere of the time is simply yet vividly portrayed, and I was completely engrossed in the story. 

Maria's childhood takes a darker turn when her father remarries, and her 'uncle' Salvo comes to live with them.  Her account of the abuse she suffered is raw, poignant and utterly believable, and I loved that this part of the book showed not only the reasons for her silence, but also the way in which the simple, ill-educated population were manipulated by the rigours of formal Catholicism.  Stunningly good.  At this point I was going to give the book 5*, which is not a rating I give often. 

Skipping forward, a marriage is arranged between Maria and Vincenzo, when she is sixteen and he is in his late twenties.  They go to live in Milan, and the marriage is difficult, interspersed with brief moments of happiness.  They live in a squalid apartment, Vinny struggles with the prejudices of the northern Italians, he gambles, drinks, and eventually abuses her physically.  I felt this part was a little rushed, and I was sometimes a bit 'hmm' about Maria's reactions, but I was still enjoying it.  Eventually, Vinny's gambling spirals out of control, and he offers Maria up as a final wager in desperation to recoup his losses.  He loses, and Maria has to leave the house with her new protector, Matteo. 

It's now that the book trails off.  Maria is forced into prositution.  At one point, her flat mate, Lisa, gives her a tablet 'to take the edge off', which turns out to be LSD.  Girls in that situation are usually given (or choose to take) heroin or cocaine (or possibly dexedrine, in the 1960s), which give the illusion of wellbeing, not LSD, which is a powerful hallucinogenic and produces a 'trip', not the sort of drug that would be offered to 'take the edge' off anything; I suspected Ms Pryke had not done her research.  After a terrible few months, Maria meets Pietro, a young, professional man who falls instantly in love with her during their brief afternoon/early evening meetings.  Despite the danger involved with going up against Italian gangsters and the fact that he hardly knows her, Pietro hatches a plan to aid her escape, which involves them faking their own deaths and changing their identities.  For some reason I couldn't fathom, his parents (who, in the staid Italian 1960s, are perfectly okay about him potentially ruining his life for the sake of a prostitute he hardly knows) agree to orchestrate this preposterous plan.  I am afraid I could no longer suspend my disbelief at this point; I thought of at least three more convincing ways to end the Matteo section even as I was reading it. 

The book is wrapped up quickly, with details about Pietro and Maria's happy new life, her return to Sicily and reunion with her family.  Again, it was over too soon.  The reunion with Guisy should have been hugely emotional, but it felt raced through, with all information given about the people of Maria's childhood like a quick report. 

I am giving this book 3.5* but rounding it up to 4* on Amazon because the beginning was so very, very good, and because Ms Pryke can certainly write; I read it in one day and looked forward to getting back to it each time.  The main problem is that for the depth of plot it needs to be a novel the reader can become immersed in emotionally, not a short catalogue of disastrous events.  Had the second part, with Vinny, been extended, and the prostitution plot been less outlandish, it could have been a terrific book.  Sometimes, less is more; this author is talented enough not to need car chases and faked deaths.  The atmosphere of Sicily, the stark contrast between the 1960s and the 21st century, the characterisation and her simple knack of writing good sentences that keep the reader wanting to turn the pages, are enough.  And I'd definitely read something else by her.



  1. This is a really excellently written and well-balanced review Terry. Thanks for sharing.

    1. And it's nearly as long as the book!

      I know there is a trend towards shorter books these days, but novellas need to fit the length, rather than have novel-length stories squashed into them, as I am sure you will agree. This needed to be at least half as long again to do it justice. I felt as though the author had written the first bit, then decided she couldn't really be bothered with it half way through, and rushed to finish it; the second half read like a first or second draft, in clear contrast to the first half. A shame, indeed, because when I settled down to read it, I thought, oh good, I'm going to love this :)

  2. This is a really good, in-depth review, Terry. When I reviewed I was stumped on how to write it without spoilers (I could have one what you have done here, and given a spoiler alert - didn't think of that.) I'm glad we agree on most things but importantly two; the pacing of the plot was erratic...but that the author can write really well. I look forward to reading further work of Helen Pryke.

    1. Yes, one could only write a vague review without spoilers, couldn't one?! I don't usually like reviews that are mostly explanations of plot (because you can read the damn book if you want to know what's going to happen), but I felt it was necessary in this case. Yes, the pacing was all over the place. Almost like she'd written the first bit, then someone said 'this needs to be a whole novel', so she scribbled the rest out in her lunch hour without thinking it through or redrafting. Doesn't do her writing skills justice at all.