That Girl from Nowhere (by Dorothy Koomson)

I’ve liked almost everything I’ve read by Dorothy Koomson. She writes thoughtful women’s fiction based in the UK, and her protagonists are often non-white, so issues of discrimination and feeling different often come into play. I regularly place another of her books on my wishlist, and was delighted to receive this one for a recent birthday.

‘That girl from nowhere’ is about Clemency Smittson, who is known to most of her friends as Smitty. She was adopted shortly after birth, and had a mostly happy childhood with loving parents, marred only by her bullying cousin Nancy. Smitty recalls the occasion when she realised that she did not look like her parents at all (they are white, she is black) and found out about her adoption. And although her parents evidently adored her, her cousin taunted her with being ‘not real’, not properly part of the family, not the same as anyone else.

We learn about this, and other aspects of her childhood and more recent years, in short sections interspersed with emails from Abi, someone who will later become important in the story. When we first meet Smitty, she’s about to move into a new apartment near Brighton, after ending a long-term relationship with Seth. We quickly learn that Seth betrayed her in a way that she doesn’t think she can forgive, although she evidently still cares for him.

We also discover that Smitty’s father recently died after a long drawn-out illness, and her mother - whom she finds quite stressful - has decided to move in with her. She promised a long time earlier not to try to get in touch with her birth family, but she’s in her late thirties and is curious, particularly about a box decorated with butterflies, which is the only thing she has from her earliest weeks.

There’s rather a big coincidence that leads to her finding her birth family… and the first half of the book is taken up with setting in place the various relationships and situations. There’s quite a large cast but the author is good with distinctive names and, to some extent, characters, so that I never found myself confused.

However, it took a while to get into the book. The writing is very good, but it seemed at first to be a somewhat gentle story of finding oneself; Smitty has been without any real feeling of who she is or where she’s from, made more complex by the issue of skin colour, and by her unpleasant relatives.

Then the second half of the book is full of unexpected revelations and plot directions that I didn’t see coming, yet were somehow believable. The plotting is meticulous, and the story unfolds perfectly with exactly the right amount of information at each stage. By the time I had reached the last hundred pages, I could barely put it down.

There are many contemporary issues that are examined, or at least touched upon: the difficulties that can be experienced by adoptive children; the ways people ‘shame’ each other, often accidentally; the unconditional love that can often be one-sided; the question of what circumstances might make someone commit a crime. The idea of levels of racism runs throughout, and yet is not as major an issue as it might be in the hands of a less-skilled writer.

This is not a book for those who prefer gentler women’s fiction. There's more bad language in this than I’m comfortable with, and rather too much detail about intimate encounters. I wouldn’t recommend this to younger teenagers. Nor are all the questions answered by the end of the book: the ending is positive, yet several things are left open to the readers’ imagination.

Perhaps some of the characters are a little stereotyped too; yet, all in all I found this a powerful and thought-provoking novel. It’s a story that will remain with me for some time.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

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