This story begins in the present day as Madame Burova, reader of Tarot cards, palms and her crystal ball for more than fifty years, is preparing to retire. She had taken over the family’s booth on Brighton’s promenade from her Romany mother, Shunty-Mae, in 1972 but has grown weary of other people’s questions, problems and revelations: she now needs to carve out a life for herself whilst there’s still time. She has always kept her clients’ secrets but some have proved more burdensome than others and, as she prepares to close her booth, she picks up two brown envelopes she had been entrusted with decades earlier. They contain the secret which has troubled her most but the time has now come for her to open them and fulfil a promise made long ago.
In London another woman is also about to make a fresh start. Billie is taking a final look around her childhood home which has just been sold following her father’s death. An only child, she had always felt secure and loved so her memories, although tinged with sadness now that both parents are dead, are good ones. A year earlier her divorce had been finalised and she had taken voluntary redundancy from her job to look after her father but now, with no ties, she’s uncertain what she’ll do next. However, when she receives a brown envelope from her solicitor, containing a letter from her late father which tells her that she had been a foundling whom they’d adopted when she was three weeks old, her world is turned upside down and all that she’d taken for granted about her identity must now be questioned. A second brown envelope forwarded by her solicitor, with an explanation that the sender, Imelda Burova, had known her father for many years but had always communicated with him via the solicitor’s office, compounds the mystery. In this letter Imelda invites Billie to meet her in a café in Brighton because she has information to share which would be to her advantage.
Switching between the present day and Brighton in the early 1970s, this warm-hearted, easy to read story very quickly introduces the reader to a large cast of (mostly!) likeable, colourful characters, some of whom will play a part in revealing the mystery surrounding who Billie’s parents were. In addition to giving readings in her promenade booth, Madame Burova also offers them to guests at Larkins Holiday Park (think a Butlin’s camp with a sleazy, ‘wandering hands manager!) where she gets to know the other entertainers, including Sara-Jade the contortionist, Jeanie the singer, Dolly, Daisy and Dixie the ‘dancing mermaids’, talented pianist Charlie and, most important of all, Wall of Death rider Cillian, someone who will always hold a special place in her heart.
Using all these characters, as well as Imelda’s relationships with her parents and her delightful group of friends in the community, the author paints a wonderfully nostalgic picture of summer holidays in a seaside town – I could almost smell the briny sea, the candyfloss, the hotdogs and suntan lotion! She also conjures up an authentic feel of what life was like in the 1970s, a time when overt racism, discrimination and sexism were commonplace and seldom challenged. I did find it a bit frustrating that these darker themes appeared to be treated rather superficially, with none of them being explored in any depth. However, I soon came to understand that to have done so would have undermined the essentially ‘feel-good’, optimistic and occasionally rather mystical nature of Ruth Hogan’s storytelling. She creates a world in which, however tragic or upsetting some experiences are, love and friendships are stronger than enmity and good will always triumph over evil. Maybe there are times when, even for the most cynical among us, it’s good to allow oneself to be immersed in such generous warm-heartedness and optimism!
In addition to the cast of larger-than-life human characters, the story features four unforgettable dogs Dasha, Star, Mabel and Sparrow, all of whom added a very enjoyable dimension to my reading … in fact there were moments when I found myself yearning to join them (and their owners) in their walks along Brighton’s pebbly beach!
Some of the scenes in the book are set in St Pancras railway station and the author’s wonderfully evocative descriptions of the statue of Sir John Betjeman (who can resist touching it as they pass!), the piano players and the Betjeman pub brought back happy memories of meeting friends there when I lived in London. One unexpected result of reading this story has been that it has prompted me to reread some of his poems and I’m enjoying being reminded of how much I enjoy them!
Even though I’ve never had my cards read, the scenes featuring Madame Burova’s Tarot cards readings felt very authentic so it came as no surprise to discover that the author, keen to ensure she was writing ‘knowledgeably and respectfully’ about Imelda and Shunty-Mae’s culture, gifts and profession, spent many weeks learning how to read the cards. Apparently the life story of Eva Petulengro, the famous clairvoyant and fortune teller whose booth remains on Brighton’s sea front, was the author’s inspiration for this novel and, as far as I can judge, she did justice to both her fictional characters and her real life ‘muse’ in her portrayals.
This is an entertaining, well-written ‘feel-good’ story – ideal as a summer read or an antidote to all those ‘pandemic blues’!
With thanks to the publisher and Readers First for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Reviewed by Linda Hepworth
Published by Two Roads, 01/04/2021
ISBN: 978-1-529-37331-8, Hardback