Back last year I read Ruth Hogan’s debut novel The Keeper of Lost Things. If you’ve read that review you will already now that I fell completely in love with the story and couldn’t praise it enough. The author wrote with such subtle yet extremely poignant emotion, and showed in her writing the true wonders of humanity. Naturally when I heard that her next novel, The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes, was soon to be released I immediately requested a copy to review in the hopes that I would once again have the same wonderful feelings.
First things first, this book is physically a beautiful thing and a real aesthetic celebration of the story within it. Yet despite the name, the book doesn’t follow the titular ‘Sally Red Shoes’. Instead we are first presented with Masha, a woman whose life changed irrevocably twelve years ago. Unable to move on from the guilt and pain of the death of a loved one, Masha finds solace in two places; the town’s lido, and the local Victorian cemetery. At the Lido she punishes herself, forcing her body below the water to experience the terror of nearly drowning. The cemetery brings a less painful relief, allowing Masha to walk among the graves and seek company from the dearly departed. It is here that she first meets Sally Red Shoes; a bag lady with miraculous vocals who most consider crazy. With the help of Sally and Kitty Muriel, a glamorous seventy-something, Masha’s world begins to expand, reminding her that perhaps her life does have meaning after all.
The author has definitely started this novel with the clear intentions of drawing her readers in. We are given contrasting snippets of both the past and the present which combine to create an opening with a lot of mystery. We can infer that something awful has happened, something that has changed the life of Masha beyond recognition and left her in her current situation, but we’re not immediately told why or how the characters have gotten to this point. These subtle inferences worked really well for me as a reader and I began to immediately desire some sort of answers to this unknown element of the plot.
Once the author has reeled us in with this intrigue, we being to slowly fill out the details of Masha’s life and what her personality is like both before and after this incident has occurred. Yet alongside this we begin to get a dual narrative running throughout the novel. Whilst we still have Masha’s first person narrative, we also have shorter third person narratives of another lady called Alice. This brings even more of an element of the unknown to the novel and you immediately begin to question why this woman has been made a focus of the story and how she fits into the rest of the plot. I think this is also helped by the change from first person with Masha to third person narrative with Alice. This narrative technique means that Alice’s sections are not quite as personal as Masha’s, and whilst incredibly intriguing, you don’t yet feel quite as invested in her character as you will come to be. Whilst I must admit that I caught the gist of Alice’s side plot quite early on, and I do think it’s fairly obvious, it was still a very good way of trying to make you decipher the whys. You may have guessed what has actually happened and filled in the blanks prematurely, but you still don’t know why this would come to pass, and it is really this unknown mindset of Alice’s character which pushes you further than any shock plot device.
One of the things I found in Ruth Hogan’s first novel was that she is able to capture a characters personality incredibly well, and I found this to be just as accurate a statement for her second novel. One of the scenes which immediately springs to mind, and I can still recall it vividly even now, is when Masha is invited to a friends dinner party. Needless to say not all of the guests are charming and we are given a wide variety of personalities to bounce off as comments are tosses back and forth. Extra bonus points also go to the fact that the author has included a dog in this scene, whose manners are arguably better than some of the other human guests! Even now I can vividly see this hilarious and quite telling scene playing out in my mind, and its a wonderful example of the vibrancy with which Ruth’s characters are made.
Whilst on the subject of characters, words can’t express how much I adored the titular character of Sally Red Shoes. Sally is a slightly eccentric lady with strange habits and because of this a lot of society are comfortable with relegating her to the label of local ‘weirdo’. It’s quite heartbreaking to see how misunderstood her character is and I’m so glad the author allowed us the chance to peel back the layers of Sally’s character and get to know how very kind and loving a person she is, despite initial appearances. It’s a sharp reminder that you might not always know what has gone on in someone’s life, and that it takes little from us to show some kindness to another person.
As you begin to read this novel you will come to understand that one of the central themes is the idea of death and the loss of a loved one. I found the novel to be a very focused exploration of grief and how all consuming its can be. The author explores with great skill the ways in which guilt can often become combined with grief, preventing someone from moving forwards or even allowing themselves to feel worthy of happiness. The timing of this book was actually great as I had just previously read Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, a non-fiction book centering on death and the crematorium. Both of these books compliments each other well on the ideas of how we as both individuals and a collective society deal with grief. Likewise the setting of the Victorian cemetery is one which is crucial to Masha’s development, but is also an added element in itself. It’s quite heartbreaking to consider how many of these beautiful places of rememberance have changed and become neglected as society has left them behind. Nowadays you’re more likely to find someone who is terrified of entering a churchyard than someone who can find joy and solace in its quiet solitude!
I was increasingly curious as this book advanced as to how the author was going to conclude her plot. After becoming so invested in the characters and their story lines you want there to be some sort of resolution or happy ending. I’m pleased to say that the book does have a good amount of closure, with a particularly poignant ending adding to the effect. Having said that I would have liked to have seen more interaction with certain characters during the final scenes, as I felt that I had become so personally invested in their lives, but overall the plot twist was tied up very nicely.
I think it’s often incredibly hard for an author to follow on from the success of their first novel, but I can honestly say that Ruth Hogan has done a remarkable job. Once again she has proven that she has an uncanny ability to create a perfectly balanced, cosy and comforting read. She is able to talk about these awful topics such as despair and grief which consume our very human nature, whilst simultaneously making us believe that we are in the presence of a dear friend. Her books are full of love, life, and human perseverance, and I feel confident that I am always going to leave a Ruth Hogan book feeling like a much better person than when I started.
Side note – I also need to give the author brownie points for mentioning my hometown of Cardiff!!
Publisher: Two Roads
Disclaimer – I was very kindly sent his book in exchange for a review. I will only ever post my own honest opinions and will NOT write a favourable review in exchange for a complimentary book.