How It Was By Janet Ellis – A Review

Publisher: Two Roads

Publication Date: 8th August 2019

Janet Ellis first book was The Butchers Hook which ashamedly I haven’t read (I’ve had a copy for ages though). Her first book is historical fiction and How It Was is a leap away from this.

I was drawn to the colourful 70’s inspired cover, it’s just brilliant. But on reading the premise I knew it could potentially be a fantastic read, and I’m very happy to report that it was!  In fact I read this bad boy (all 448 pages of it) one extremely rainy Sunday afternoon.

The story starts in the present day with Marion at the bedside of her husband Michael who hasn’t got very long to live.  It becomes apparent very early on that theirs is not a conventional marriage and that they have grown estranged over the passing years.  As much as Marion feels an affection and fondness for Michael as a person, she is really just sitting by his bedside out of duty.  Whilst she is there she brings to the hospital a bag of photographs, old letters and documents, pulling them at random from the bag and reliving whichever memory they relate to or stir in her.  Photographs of their family life together with their two children, Sarah and Eddie.

It also becomes quickly apparent that the relationship between Marion and her daughter Sarah is fraught and with each memory pulled from the bag we travel back in time to the 1970’s when Sarah was 14 and Eddie 7, and discover what sequence of events led to fractured relationships and broken bonds.

Marion is a housewife and mother who feels resentful of her dull family life.  She doesn’t work and spends her days tending to her family’s needs.  She longs for something more to fill her days and her heart and when Sarah is a toddler she joins a choir where she meets a man and starts an affair.  This affair is all too brief, but Marion is left with a taste of what could be, of a life beyond her very agreeable, very safe husband and her two children.

When another man comes into their lives, both Marion and Sarah become linked to him in their separate ways, and when Marion finds and reads Sarah’s diary she begins to compete with Sarah for this new presence in their lives. This only serves to make the already faltering relationship between mother and daughter even more fractured.  But both of them have to pay a terrible price for their competition, one that they both could never have envisaged.

As I said I ate this up in one day.  It is much more than a domestic tale, it has such great characters and very realistic imperfect relationships.  Marion as a character makes choices that are ill advised and she appears to be selfish and closed off, this makes her a flawed mother and wife and there is nothing I love more!

I am usually massively put off by tumultuous Mother/Teenage Daughter relationships in books, particularly where the mother is trying desperately to get her daughter to love and respect her.  The huge difference with Marion and Sarah is the fact that Marion really doesn’t like her own daughter very much at all.  In fact she even seems to be repulsed by her.  She’s growing into a girl that Marion does not recognise and the more she reads her daughter’s private thoughts written in her diary, the more she seems to dislike her and distance herself from her.

Eddie is most definitely her favourite child, with his sweet nature and his need for his older sister to see him, notice him, give him some of her waning attention. Marion worries about him and can get quite distracted by dark thoughts of what could happen to him. However, her thoughts are also caught up in this man in their lives, how she can deceive her husband, her family and engineer spending time with him.  She is very focused and driven, knowing that what she is doing is completely wrong, but not caring very much at all about any consequences.

The peripheral characters in the form of friends and neighbours add depth to the story.  Particularly neighbour Sheila, who is instrumental in ways in Marion’s troubles.  She appears to be a typical ‘nosy neighbour’ but turns into someone much more calculating.

The narrative flits between characters with the bulk being from Marion’s perspective.  But we also get extracts from Sarah’s diary which allow us an insight into her thoughts and feelings about her mother, and we also get a few little Eddie chapters and Micheal chapters thrown in.  It was interesting to get an insight into Michael’s thoughts about his wife on his deathbed.

The narrative also flits between the present day in the hospital and the 1970’s.  What I will say is that the distinction between these two time periods was not always apparent and it did throw me a few times, but not to any detriment.  I would also say that it could maybe have been a little shorter, but that is just my opinion. I still gulped down all 433 pages of it!

Janet Ellis has a lovely, engaging writing style and there were some very vivid character descriptions that I just loved!

Overall I really enjoyed this book, I felt the characters were flawed and some not very likeable at all but that’s just what I love! It seemed at times like little clues about what would happen were dripped into the narrative.  You KNOW what is going to happen, you just don’t know but when it does you still feel shaken (at least I did anyway).  The memories pulled from the bag are like little squares of material slowly stitched together to make a quilt of sadness and regret.

A thoroughly immersive story that I would heartily recommend!

Thank you to Kat Burdon and the publisher for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx




4 thoughts on “How It Was By Janet Ellis – A Review

  1. This looks very intriguing and like you say, the mother/daughter relationship is one that can be done to death so the fact that this was done so well and you enjoyed it so much is proof of a quality read!


    1. Absolutely! I can’t bear angst ridden teen girl characters but the mother/daughter relationship in this story felt unique. Such a good read.


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