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Once Upon a Time in England: A Novel Paperback – September 20, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

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"* 'A graphic snapshot of a northern family's daily life...You'll develop such an affinity for brooding, talented Robbie Fitzgerald and his Tamil princess wife Susheela that you'll be willing them to escape their ultimately doomed life. Utterly gripping.' - She * 'Helen Walsh is the real thing; a serious writer to watch. Once Upon a Time in England is an impressive second book. She just keeps on getting better.' - M.J. Hyland * 'Spellbinding and utterly unique.' - Independent on 'Brass' * 'An incredibly uplifting experience. She will knock you sideways' - Guardian on 'Brass'" --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

About the Author

Helen Walsh was born in Warrington, England, in 1977. Her first novel, Brass, was published in 2004 and was the winner of a Betty Trask Prize. She now lives in Liverpool. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 359 pages
  • Publisher: Canongate U.S. (September 20, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1847671799
  • ISBN-13: 978-1847671790
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 6.3 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,708,038 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
I didn't read Helen Walsh's controversial debut (Brass), but this sophmore novel was interesting-looking enough to spark my interest. It grabbed me from the start, and despite its deficiencies, carried me through to the bitter end. As such, I find my self grappling with the question of whether I "liked" it or not. Basically, this is a classic British kitchen sink drama that is extremely well executed. That is to say, very early on bad things happen, and one gets the impression that bad things will keep on happening -- and that's pretty much how it plays out. The good news is that Walsh knows her setting and characters so well, that it feels quite real.

This may, in large part, be down to the semi-autobiographical nature of the story. Its protagonists are Robbie (an Irish factory worker who moonlights as a knockout Van Morrison-style pub soul signer), Suheela (Robbie's pretty Malaysian wife), and then as the book progresses, Vincent (their shy, bully-magnet son), and Ellie (their tomboy younger daughter). Walsh has said in interviews that Suheela's character was greatly inspired by her own Malaysian mother, who married an Irish truck driver, and Ellie is clearly the stand-in for Walsh. The setting is the same mid-1970s to late-'80s Warrington and Manchester Walsh herself grew up.

The book follows the struggles of this mixed-race family over the course of 15 years or so, as they move from the rough estates of Orford to the new developments in Thelwall. In the first section, Robbie holds center stage (literally), as his signing career appears destined for glory. Unfortunately, the night of his triumph is coincidentally the night a gang of skinheads break into his house and attack Suheela.
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Format: Paperback
A tale that begins with hope and promise is shattered by a heinous event, a talented young father's future overwhelmed by circumstances: "Robbie Fitzgerald was a poet ruffian, a soul man who looked hard." With his bright shock of red hair and alabaster skin, Robbie Fitzgerald is filled with energy, on the cusp of stardom, discovery by a famous agent in the down-trodden, crime-riddled neighborhood in which he is performing. His voice soaring above an appreciative audience, Robbie is ecstatic, ready to embrace the future. But he returns home to find the police questioning his distraught wife, victim of a hate crime, her advanced pregnancy and concern for their little son sending Susheela, a Malaysian, into paroxysms of fear. Robbie cannot leave this terrified woman to her own resources, already intimidated by the stares of her neighbors and the shabbiness of the area, Susheela can barely take care of her growing family.

Thus is the drama set to unfold over the next few years (1975-1989), Robbie's singing career no longer an option, Susheela, now Sheila, a victim of recurring nightmares and a terror that nearly cripples her. There is some relief when the family moves to a better neighborhood, but the core issues remain ignored, Robbie trudging through hard-working days in a funk of disappointment and despair; Sheila hoping material goods will fill the emptiness that often overwhelms her, doting on her children, a fearful victim of that painful incident; young Vincent suffers the daily torments of fellow student who mock him for his skin color and social ineptitude; only the exuberant Ellie remains oblivious to the unhappiness of her family, bouncing joyfully into every new day, basking in the affection her father lavishes on his sprightly daughter.
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