Tell Mrs Poole I'm Sorry (by Kathleen Rowntree)

It’s almost exactly sixteen years since I first borrowed a book by Kathleen Rowntree, and liked it sufficiently to start acquiring others that she had written. Eventually I also bought my own copy of the original book I had borrowed, inexpensively at a charity shop, and a week or two ago realised that it was more than time for a re-read.

I had entirely forgotten the plot and characters of ‘Tell Mrs Poole I’m Sorry’ when I started, although a few memories surfaced as I read. We meet Liz, first, worried about her teenage daughter. Rosie has become moody and Liz is worried that she’s becoming too friendly with an older, married man. She needs to get together with her closest friends Chrissie and Nell to talk about it, so they arrange a meeting.

The bulk of the book is the story of the close friendship that develops when these three women were eleven. None of them feel entirely comfortable in their families, although their backgrounds are very different. Liz is from a respectable, comfortably off family although she’s the only child. Chrissie’s mother ran away when she was small, and she lives with a disreputable father and aunt who mostly neglect her. Nell lives in a crowded house with several siblings, a downtrodden mother and an unpredictable father.

The three urge each other on to increasingly risky behaviour, starting by staying at each other’s houses unseen by the adults. As they grow up their interests inevitably diverge somewhat as they discover boys.

A bit confusingly, the ‘present day’ part of the story is told in the past tense, but the growing-up schoolgirl lengthy flashbacks are told in the present tense. It’s an unusual way round, but I quickly got used to it. The present day intersperses cleverly with the past as a picture is built up of what happened in their later teens, and why Liz - who is a psychologist - is so stressed about her daughter’s potential affair.

There are many hints about what happens to Liz in her later teens, and a great deal of tension as events gradually come together for the shocking thing that she does, which changes her life. I was worried that it was going to feel sordid, and indeed it’s quite an unpleasant storyline, albeit not unexpected. But it’s sensitively written, with implications and generalisations rather than too many details. It’s quite plain, too, from the start, that Liz very much regrets what she did.

There are plenty of other subplots woven in throughout, and I felt that the characters of the three friends were well-rounded and mostly believable, with distinctively different personalities. Liz’s mother is somewhat caricatured, as is Chrissie’s aunt, but other significant characters are mostly believable, in some cases rather unpleasantly so.

All in all, I enjoyed this book. If you like women’s fiction with a hard-hitting storyline, I would definitely recommend it. No longer in print, but often available second-hand. Can be bought in Kindle form on both sides of the Atlantic.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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