Monday, January 31, 2011

Up From The Blue

By Susan Henderson
HarperCollins, $28.99
Reviewed by Nicky Pellegrino

Even though 2011 is still relatively new I suspect this debut novel from US author Susan Henderson is going to endure as one of my stand-out reads of the year. It’s remarkable because of the way the author climbs so completely into the head of a troubled child and, while midway through credibility is stretched pretty much to the limit, by then you’re so firmly entrenched in Tillie Harris’ dysfunctional world you want to believe even the most unlikely turn of the plot.

The story opens with the grown-up and pregnant Tillie in the middle of a crisis. She’s just moved house, her husband is away on business and she’s having sudden labour pains. Scared, confused and vulnerable, forced to turn for help to her father from whom she’s been estranged, Tillie’s mind goes back to another difficult time in her life, her childhood on a US air force base. “Our neighbours didn’t know exactly what the trouble was inside our home,” Tillie tells us. “I don’t think any of us understood it either.”

Through the eyes of the young Tillie we meet her tough disciplinarian military father and the Momma she adores who brings her night-time drinks in a special cup covered in rubies, shops impulsively for pretty, glittery things and sometimes spends days in bed refusing to move.

This is the story of a child trying to make sense of her world and Henderson does a masterful job of letting her readers see it through a child’s eyes but understand it through an adult’s. The characters are beautifully drawn: Tillie’s father, ill-equipped to deal with his emotional wreck of a wife; her brother who survives the awfulness in his own buttoned-down, repressed fashion, and Tillie herself, heroic in a messed up sort of way, spirited, confused, loyal and lovable.

It’s when Tillie’s mother inexplicably disappears that the story lurches a little towards the improbable. So yes the plot is flawed but still this is one of the most engrossing and sensitively written portraits of a family struggling with mental illness.
A rewarding read.


Nicky Pellegrino, a succcesful Auckland-based author of popular fiction, (The Italian Wedding was published in May 2009 while her latest, Recipe for Life was published by Orion in April, 2010), is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above piece was first published on 30 January, 2011.

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