I loved this novel by Debbie Taylor. It is rare for me to care about all the characters in a book. I usually have a favourite or a character that has a connection for me and it certainly helps if the character that has most meaning for me is the main protagonist. In this book, though, the cast is vast yet they are all people I believed in…
…which is interesting because at the heart of this book is a theme which I am not sure I do believe in: reincarnation! Debbie Taylor has written a fascinating novel set in two time frames; we find out about Tynesiders of 2007 and people from the same area from 1897.
We are led into the story through the eyes of Ben, a twelve year old boy who wants to be a girl. So strong are his feelings of being born in the wrong body that he takes matters into his own hands without reference to his single parent father who is too busy to notice what his son really wants in life. Through meeting a therapist, Dr Mary, he comes across an older woman. Laura, who has herself changed sex and who knows about the pain felt by the young boy. Add to this growing cast a BBC documentary maker from Mary’s past and an old man, once a trawlerman, living alone and you have a lot of people to remain interested in. Yet Debbie Taylor is skilled at using all her characters to unveil her story without confusion.
Which is just as well because 1898 has its own set of characters to follow. Annie is the herring girl of the title. In love with Sam and hopeful that he will notice, her world is complete when he falls in love with her. Her friend Flo is in love with Tom but he is not a man who wants just one woman in his life. Annie’s brother Jimmy has his own secrets and desires and women do not feature in them. There is a tragedy in the nineteenth century parts of the story that affects all the characters but it also has repercussions in the 2007 sections as well and leads, eventually, to the central connection between Annie and Ben. In part, it suggests that Ben’s need to be a girl has much to do with reincarnation.
Throughout this novel there is a pursuit of the past, to uncover events, and the pursuit of identity; what makes us us? At no point did Debbie Taylor lose me or confuse me. Instead, I started to question my view of reincarnation and the extent to which we reject things we do not understand. Most of all, I suppose, I was keen that Ben came to terms with who he is.
My only reservation with this book is with the publisher rather than the author. What is going on with the book cover? I know books are marketed to attract specific groups of reader but, please… this is not an historical romance!
‘The Herring Girl’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?