From the publisher:
Mona and Wolfie have lived on Victoria Park for over fifty years. Now, on the eve of their sixty-fifth wedding anniversary, they must decide how to navigate Mona’s declining health. Bookended by the touching exploration of their love, Victoria Park follows the disparate lives of twelve people living in their shared east-London neighbourhood over the course of a single year. As the months unfold, ordinary days give way to extraordinary moments … Meanwhile, the lingering memory of an acid attack in the park sends ripples of unease through the community.
Whilst there is nothing original about telling the interweaving stories of neighbours living in a tight-knit community, Gemma Reeve’s moving debut novel stands out as an excellent illustration of how effective this method of storytelling can be. Her evocative use of language was evident within her earliest sentences, meaning that by the end of the first chapter I felt I’d not only got to know (and love) Wolfie and Mona in the present day, but had learnt much about their fifty-year marriage, about the kosher deli Wolfie had, until his retirement a year earlier, owned and run for sixty-six years, the shed at the bottom of his garden where he continued to smoke salmon and his philosophy on cooking – Cooking helped him to shrink the borders between giving people what they needed and understanding what he needed himself.
I’d also been introduced to other members of his community and had made my first trip into Victoria Park, where Wolfie now walked every day – a routine Mona had prescribed for him since retirement. ‘There’s nothing a brisk walk can’t fix’ she would say … She was right, as she so often was. The author’s ability to so immediately conjure-up such vivid, evocative images, to make her characters leap from the page, ensured that each of the following eleven chapters added complex layers of depth to the developing story.
Although each of the chapters is written from the perspective of a different character who lives close to the park, one of the central strengths of the story lies in how their stories intersect, allowing the reader to gradually see each of the individual characters and their experiences in a different light. I was really impressed by the author’s skill in giving her disparate characters such distinctive voices as she revealed their daily lives and the struggles they were facing. With such relatively short chapters and many changes of perspective, the story could so easily have felt disjointed but there was never a moment when I felt unable to follow its flow, or to remain immersed in the lives of all the residents. I’m sure that this was due to the fact that the interconnectedness of the characters, the gradual revelations of the impact individuals’ behaviour had on the lives of others in the community, were all explored with sensitivity and empathy.
The author used her characters to explore some important themes: the anguish of dementia, the search for identity, the stresses of IVF treatment, family breakdown, deprivation, the effects of gentrification on a tight-knit community, illegal immigration, betrayal, love and loss, to name just a few. There were times when I found it almost unbearably painful to read about the struggles and disappointments many of the characters were facing, as well as the various losses they were having to deal with. However, I never felt a sense of despair because throughout the story there are many examples of the resilience of human beings, of moments of joy, of optimism and of quiet humour.
I know Victoria Park and think the author made it come alive so effectively that I felt I was walking through it with the characters, taking pleasure in watching it change from season to season and appreciating its importance as a resource for the community. She engaged my sense of taste and smell with her wonderful descriptions of food (how I’d love to try Wolfie’s smoked salmon – perhaps with a little horseradish and some of his potato salad!) Her descriptions of the local market, the noises and smells of the streets, the changing nature of the houses as new people move in and the process of gentrification begins, the shops which reflected the multi-cultural make-up of the community, were all equally evocative.
I loved this perceptive, poignant and eloquently written debut novel and know that the author’s characters will remain vivid in my memory. Encapsulated within the narrative are so many reflections on how dramatically life can change within a single year, making this story feel particularly pertinent as we approach the end of 2020, a year which has brought not only so much change and loss, but one which has also seen a heightening of support within our communities.
Review by Linda Hepworth
Personal read: 5*
Group read: 4*
Allen & Unwin (Imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd) 7th January 2021
ISBN: 978-1-91163-076-0 Hardback