Diane McKinney-Whetstone’s novel is the tale of Freeda, Nan, Tish but most notably Neena, who is the main character in the book. Neena and Tish are sisters; their mother is Freeda and their grandmother, Freeda’s mother is Nan.
McKinney-Whetstone covers the history of all of the women although not linearly and skips between childhood and love affairs and reminiscences of them all; however, the writing is so good that does not lead to the book being fragmented at all. It is the story of family and folk and how they get on and don’t get on and find their individual ways through life with what they’re given.
Mental illness is prevalent throughout the whole book, mainly in the form of Freeda who has internal conflict from her early years which becomes more pronounced as she gets older. She struggles at times and this leads to her leaving and Nan becoming the girls’ main carer in her absences. This affects Tish, the younger sister, less than it does Neena, who is desperate for the attention of her mother, Neena being the brunt of Nan’s sharper edged moods more than Tish. Neena craves the return of her mother and this leads her to try and seek her out, becoming, in her determination to find her, a restless spirit like her mother, although arguably less destructive to herself. However, in order to survive this life, Neena has had to learn some tricks to get enough money to live and has caused upset in the lives of others.
The book pivots around a key moment – the potential birth of new life and a return to the environment that makes Neena to a degree who she is – where she grew up. This causes a stirring of memories and yearnings in Neena and we follow her as she navigates day-to-day life as well as in the sharing of her remembrances of her mother, how Nan treated her and her protective and powerful love for her little sister.
I thought that this book dealt with depictions of mental illness with sympathy and compassion, especially the character of Bow Peep who Neena befriends. The tensions in families were also expertly depicted, showing the reasoning for decisions made in the moment that, in hindsight, illustrate the influence of clouding emotions felt at the time. It is a book full of human relationships in their many forms.