Once Upon a Time in England, By Helen Walsh

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The Independent Culture

Warrington in the 1970s: Robbie is an Irish singer with a big voice, moderately successful on the club circuit – but not successful enough to give up his job at the factory. He is married to Susheela, a Tamil beauty from Kuala Lumpur; they met when Susheela, a nurse, tended to Robbie when he came to hospital with a broken nose.

Violence is a theme that runs through this novel; the ugliness, brutality and racism of the period are painfully well-realised. The story is written in three main sections, with a time-shift of several years between each, and we witness the gradual disintegration of the marriage, as well as the coming of age of their two sympathetic, talented, damaged and unlucky children, Ellie and Vinnie.

This is a novel about secrets – the disasters that befall this family might have been avoided or mitigated if only they'd talked to each other. But then, Warrington in the 1970s and 1980s was no place for a mixed-race marriage to flourish. The ending isn't happy, but is profoundly moving and artistically satisfying. This novel demonstrates the magic trick that the best fiction pulls off: to make you care deeply about people who don't exist.