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Review of 'The Storyteller By The Sea' - Phyllida Shrimpton

The first thing I noted on beginning to read this book was that the language and style I had fallen in love with in 'Every Shade of Happy' was just as much in evidence here. Phrases such as 'The dipping sun threw Melody's long shadow across the sand where she stood, casting a shining cloak of golden light over the windows and rooftops of the bungalows behind her' jump off the page as you read them and bring to life the beautiful setting of the novel.

The story is by no means depressing, but at its core is grief and bereavement. However, it's not a story about death, but one of life. Melody has lost her family and is about to lose her home. Somewhere along the way, she lost her dreams as well. Nevertheless, the book is a celebration of life and all its associate joys.

Indeed, there are many other examples of loss scattered throughout the book (I can't refer specifically to these because of spoilers) and it really brings home the fact that death is not the only reason people lose loved ones. Melody spends the vast majority of the novel trying to convince people that she is absolutely fine and doesn't need anyone for anything. Of course she isn't, but I understood completely where she was coming from and why she worked so hard to make it seem as though she was coping with life. Like many others, I often fall into the same trap of thinking that if I say 'I'm fine' out loud enough times, this will make it true. It doesn't, but it allows Melody the time she needs to process the changes in her life. Ultimately however, it is only with the help of her friends and family that she is genuinely able to be well again.

The other major theme in the book is about community. Shelly may be a bit rundown, but they are a strong community. They look out for each other. They take care of their own. And that's a large part of the reason why the people don't want to move, even if it is - on the face of it at least - to somewhere better. I recently attended a book event which brought together writers from all over our local area. One of the attendees was talking about community and she referred specifically to the area of Jaywick. Jaywick is famous - or perhaps infamous - for being the focus of the programme 'Benefits By The Sea' and was shown to be a particularly rundown location. (If you don't know the history of Jaywick, have a look at its Wikipedia page. It's fascinating and shows how badly the residents have been let down by various governments, organisations and greedy landowners etc.) I watched a couple of episodes as it had come up on a local search when we were trying to buy our house here and I didn't know anything about the area. I guess it was intended to show the place up as being an awful area to live in, but actually the overwhelming impression I got from watching it was the strong sense of community instilled in its residents. They may not have had much in terms of material possessions, but their communal identity was a vital part of their lives and they looked out for each other. The residents of Shelly had that same sense of who they were and it was that which shone through from start to finish.

The other major topic is how poor the treatment of those with medical conditions that affected their ability to learn in the traditional way was, in the middle of this century. We have made huge strides as a society in terms of both our understanding of and our way of helping such people to live fulfilling lives. However, I think most people would agree that we still have a long way to go in this area.

Although the book is set in Exmouth, it could be relocated to almost any other coastal location and its impact would be the same. Although the location is beautiful and I fully understood why Melody was reluctant to leave, the problems the community faced (the book is predominantly set in the 1980s) were similar to those faced up and down the country at the time. I grew up in Blackpool and it was a time of increasing unemployment as seaside towns became more impoverished, as people began to take their holidays abroad and docks and ports closed down because of the increasing traffic coming through the larger container ports.

I spent quite a long time trying to work out how to describe this book and I think it probably fits best in the 'uplit' genre. However, I think it spends much longer dwelling on the reasons why Melody is in need of help than I would normally expect in such a book. That's not to say it doesn't work or that it's depressing. It certainly isn't. I think it needed the time devoted to it because there is so much to unpack about her family and her situation and had her history been glossed over, I don't think the revelations would have had as much of an impact as they did.

The story is beautiful and the language is utterly glorious in places. This is definitely another 'must read' book and I can't wait for the launch event.

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