It was a cool Wednesday, the first day in months I’d braved leaving a building, even momentarily, without a coat. I’d left work early and travelled into the heart of London to meet an author whose work I’ve loved and whose passion and zest for life I’ve admired. And I’m terrified she’s going to be…. well. When I find someone that does things that resonate, whether it be a piece of art they’ve created, a charity they’ve started or in this case written novels I love, I always try to research then, to find out what makes them tick and in this case research has been sparse. her interviews are always coy, aloof blunt giving a sense of anger or perhaps fear of how she will be portrayed. It’s almost magnetic; You want to know more. Her books tell what I believe to be her stories but exemplified, exaggerated. Her teenage experimental self explored through Millie the protagonist of her Betty Trask awarded debut ‘Brass’, her multicultural heritage in the gut wrenchingly powerful love story ‘Once upon a time in England’ and a bout of post natal depression in ‘Go to Sleep’.
‘An Evening with Helen Walsh’ designed to promote her new, fourth novel ‘The Lemon Grove’ is being held on the basement of Waterstones Covent Garden where I find a handful of folding chairs neatly laid out. I’m not the first, there’s a few of us loitering awkwardly; women, by ourselves, of varying ages. We sip wine, fiddle with phones and browse the international history books on Libya and China we’re positioned next to. I take a seat on the end of the second row before moving forwards, perhaps worried about the turn out… I mean who comes to these things? Despite being a booklover, i rarely attend book events, why is that? The room fills with people who know each other, exuberant greetings and discussion of the Tinder press first birthday party break through the library silence of those who know no-one. After a while Walsh, who seems to have not aged in the slightest (her Malaysian heritage?) clad in a white chiffon shirt, skin tight leather panel leggings takes a seat alongside The Bookseller/Quick Reads’ Cathy Retzenbrink.
Walsh has has ‘always wanted to write about Deia’, a town in Mallorca she fell in love with…and this is that book… How a family she saw in a restaurant produced Jenn and her relationships not just with Nate, her stepdaughters 17 year old boyfriend, but with her husband Greg and aforementioned stepdaughter Emma. More importantly it looks at Jenn’s relationship with her self. ‘The Lemon Grove’ is more than just ‘the sizzling summer beach read’; much much more. Its arrival is at a time when feminism is at the forefront of conversation and , despite Jenn’s obvious foibles, it mirrors the widened voice for acceptance of oneself as a woman and the negativity aligned with ageing of the female body.
Jenn, is depicted as a beauty who has lost her youth and is struggling to manage change at a time when her stepdaughter, a girl she has brought up as her own is finding her feet in the transition from girl to woman. Jenn’s anger and jealousy of Emma’s physical self and carefree, brattish attitude to life undeniably causes Jenn’s reflection, comparison and her eventual ‘discrepancy’. She is caught at a moment of weakness and desire for reassurance by seventeen year old Nate, the child attempting to play at being a man. Nate is able to live out a teen fantasy with his personal ‘Mrs Robinson’ whilst Jenn is able to reminisce back to the halcyon days of her youth – before reality begins to kick in. Nate’s immaturity is realised by Jenn but Walsh leaves us in a position of helplessness unsure whether Jenn will receive her punishment through unravelling truths or through guilt – for Jenn, which would be worse? Is she the sex obsessed cougar whose infidelity to both Greg and Emma needs to be outed Or is she more of a damaged, lost, partially broken women to be pitied rather than despised? Her guilt being enough condemnation?
All of her work, whether it be her novels, essays or articles; pieces on Teenage Girl Gangs, New Labour, motherhood; cause her readers to push themselves, to think, to question, to learn. Walsh doesn’t appear to do anything that could be regarded as ‘superficial’, possibly due to her undergraduate degree in Sociology. So what does Walsh want us to learn in The Lemon Grove? In my opinion, it’s more than the concept of ‘don’t sleep with your step daughters boyfriend’, for me that’s not what the novel is about, that’s just a ‘vehicle’ that drives the narrative. ‘The Lemon Grove’ is a novel about honesty; being honest to yourself, your partners, your family. The secrets divulged throughout is what nearly causes the family to shatter completely, maybe they still will? But the underlying ‘message’ to me is that everyone has flaws, negative feelings – left to fester then they grow before erupting in an often unsavoury manner; if people are given space to be honest then this situations are less likely to arise. Twenty First century society depicts women as stereotypes; the young and nubile are desired; the others should be at home knitting. We need to understand that a woman’s desires do not succumb with age, they shouldn’t have to and that needs to be understood – the constant pressure to be slim and wrinkle free needs to disappear. For me this is what Walsh is getting at – or maybe I’m just reading to much into it?