Josephine (Jo) Fox’s mother Nell was a young teenager when her daughter was born in 1901 and, being unmarried, after the birth she was banished in disgrace, from both the family and her hometown, by her father. At her grandmother’s insistence, Jo was left behind to be brought up in the family home in Romsey, although her cruel, overbearing and controlling grandfather never let her forget that she was a constant source of shame to him and the family. She never knew who her father and had always assumed that he must have died before she was born. Throughout her childhood she suffered taunts about her illegitimacy (and her red hair!) but she did feel some sense of acceptance when she was allowed to tag along, tomboy-like, with a gang of older boys, led by the charismatic Abe Nash. Then, in July 1915 when she was fourteen, her grandmother died and the day after the funeral she was told to pack a bag and her grandfather, who hadn’t spoken to her for days, put her on a train to London, telling her she’d now have to get a job. To see her off, he gave her five shillings and details of her mother’s address. However, her mother was in service as a parlour maid and would have been sacked had her employers known she had an illegitimate child, so Jo took a job in a munitions factory and learnt to fend for herself. She saw her mother a couple of times a year but once Jo married and moved away, their contact was sporadic, with just occasional letters at Christmas and birthdays.
Then, in August 1940, with her husband missing for months since setting out to help with the evacuation from Dunkirk, when she discovers that her mother is frail and suffering from cancer, she is free to move into her mother’s flat in London to look after her. Some months later, when her mother was in hospital, Jo took in a copy of the Romsey paper, which was sent each week by a relative. When her mother read it, she became hysterical and appeared frightened; although she wouldn’t give any details, it was clear that she had discovered that Jo’s father was alive and still living in Romsey. Two days later she was dead, leaving Jo none the wiser about the identity of her father, apart from the fact that his name had featured in the newspaper. This was all the incentive she needed to try to trace him so, after almost twenty-six years, she returns to her hometown, with a list of names from the paper, determined to find out who he is.
The night before she arrives back the local pub had been bombed, leaving eight people dead – the seven villagers who were known to have been in the pub, but the eighth victim, a teenage girl, cannot be identified. Who is she? When it becomes clear that she hadn’t been killed in the bombing the questions increase – how did her body end up in the rubble of the pub, and who murdered her? When Jo discovers that the coroner who is investigating the deaths is her old friend Abe (now preferring to be known as Bram) and that he is looking for an assistant, she persuades him to give her the job. She is now faced with two mysteries to solve – who her father is, and the identity of the girl, along with the riddle surrounding her death.
I think that the author managed to convey an authentic picture of small-town life during WWII and that the gradual build-up of tension as Jo and Bram investigated the murder of the teenager was skilfully handled. The obstacles they faced, in a town determined to keep its secrets, as they struggled to discover her identity, to track down her killer and to obtain justice for her were well-portrayed. The descriptions of the emotional struggles Jo faced, as she embarked on her determined search to finally discover her father’s identity, credibly captured how disturbing it is to not know the full details of your origins, to forever feel that part of who you are is missing. It also showed that, once the truth is finally uncovered, some of the adjustments which have to be made and assimilated may be less than straightforward – “be careful what you wish for” springs to mind!
The developing relationship between Jo and Bram was central to the developing story. In different ways both feel like outcasts in their home town and each is familiar with the almost constant need to fight prejudice – enabling their familiar defensiveness to serve them well as they fight their growing attraction to each other! As the story progressed it seemed to me that the groundwork was being laid for their partnership to become a series, especially as the story ended with a sufficient number of aspects of the storyline which could continue to be developed! However, I think that this perhaps contributed to my feeling that as characters they didn’t feel fully-formed, and also that there was something which felt unfinished about the book, even though the main mysteries were resolved by the end.
Although it has some dark themes, including the corrosive nature of secrets and lies, the abuse and exploitation of young women and the abuse of power as people seek to protect their reputations, this story never felt particularly disturbing. I think it had the potential to be a much more powerful read so I’m left wondering whether this also contributed to my sense of disappointment when I reached the final page.
This book was the winner of the 2019 Richard and Judy “Search for a Bestseller” competition and, with their endorsement, it is likely to become a bestseller! However, although I found it an easy and reasonably entertaining read, I did find some aspects of the storytelling and plotting rather too clichéd and predictable.
However, to end on a more positive note, throughout the story there were quotes from “Jervis on Coroners, 1927” and I really enjoyed the extra dimension these added, with the insights they offered into the powers available to coroners in their investigations into unexpected and suspicious deaths – a nice change from the usual police procedures focus in crime stories!
Linda Hepworth 3/3
The Unexpected Return of Josephine Fox by Claire Gradidge
Zaffre 9781785769986 pbk Aug 2019