The Book of Polly by Kathy Hepinstall

It’s always great when you come across a book which, by all appearances, looks like it is going to be a run-of-the-mill read which will be easily forgotten in an instant of having completed it but surprises you with its humour and its quirkiness, its pace and its storytelling. That was what The Book of Polly was to me.

It tells the story of Polly, yes but as viewed through the eyes of her daughter, Willow who came to Polly very late in life, Polly being 58 when she conceived Willow. Willow’s father, refered to throughout the story as the Captain, died the same day that her mother discovered that she was pregnant with Willow and so, they have been together, just the two of them for many years.

Polly had two children before, Shel and Lisa, also to the Captain, who have left home many years previously and have partners of their own. They visit but rarely and there is family tension between them, Polly disapproving of Shel’s drinking and Lisa’s devotion, at the expense of all else, to Jesus.

Willow lives in constant fear of her mother leaving her, not by moving out but by dying. Polly is a smoker, she is partial to margaritas, she likes annoying her neighbours or at least not pandering to them. And, to be honest, you can see why she might be less than hospitable to them as on one side is a cantankerous old man called Mr. Tornello whilst on the other is Mrs. Burrell and her twins, the twins being the problem rather than Mrs Burrell. As their mother believes they are gifted and does little to discipline them, they are mini terrorists who indulge in guerrilla behaviour to annoy Polly, like urinating on her garden under cover of darkness. Luckily, Willow knows how to wear dark clothing, sit still and wield a BB gun.

Whilst her neighbours are irritating and a constant cause of strife, Polly is more than up to the task of dealing with them and Willow knows this. But what does cause Willow to become anxious about her mother is two-fold:

  • the appearance of the Bear, a moniker given for cancer which, with the unhindered smoking habit, seems bound to pay a visit;
  • a secret from her mother’s past involving hidden letters from someone called Garland (and a reluctance to talk about it) which caused to leave her home town of Bethel, Louisiana with a conviction never to return.

The plot revolves around these two things as well as lots of humorous incidents from Polly and Willow’s lives together involving falcons on school visits, squirrels called Elmer as pets, the vanquishing of garden “varmints” using unorthodox methods and Willow’s growing relationship with Dalton, a constant friend and companion who becomes more as they grow together. All of this is delivered in a style which is dry and funny and original.

When Shel returns to live with them after his wife leaves him, another element is added to a story which is already brimming with plenty of moments and mystery but Kathy Hepinstall incorporates the stress-filled relationship between Polly and her alcohol dependent son as something integral to the story, not detracting from the other plots but merging with the already established action, the resolving of their issues and finding peace another theme in the book. Shel’s return also introduces us to Phoenix Calhoun, Shel’s childhood friend and champion of Polly at all turns who along with his dog, Gravity, help Polly and Willow in the latter part of the book accomplish a quest on which Polly has been coerced to embark upon by Willow, with Polly’s welfare at heart, of course.

All of the issues of the story were very nicely resolved which always makes me happy, loose ends just leaving me a little dissatisfied. None of that here.

I think that this book was a delight. It was witty and eccentric without being weird; the characters were just the right side of bonkers to be loveable and warm, not unsettling; the action was just the right side of unlikely to be credible – it was a good fictional read and I hope that Kathy Hepinstall writes some others as I would certainly be drawn to them.

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