Once Upon a Time in England By Helen Walsh

The grim, unremitting cycle of family unhappiness is unflinchingly depicted in a gritty second novel
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The Independent Culture

As the novel opens, flame-haired Robbie Fitzgerald is tearing through the snowy streets, running for his life. But this is the visceral story of a family who find that all paths down which they flee lead right back to whatever it is they yearn to escape from – not least their own damage.

Susheela is "the cinnamon girl in an all white estate", a "timorous" Malaysian who lives with Robbie on an estate patrolled by racist boot boys. She searches for beauty in Orford, perceiving it fleetingly when the city is covered in snow, while dreaming of the heat of Kuala Lumpur. One day, however, she is raped by a gang of racist intruders in her own home, an event recounted with the kind of graphic, gratuitous detail that filled Walsh's controversial debut, Brass. This event, the motor of the novel, haunts Susheela and her children, leaking down through the generations like a poison.

Orford is a feral place. Robbie yearns to offer his children a better life than his own itinerant, rootless, uneducated upbringing, to escape the incessant terror of a world in which walls are scrawled with PAKIS OUT. But the pair struggle to stop their own degeneration. Susheela sinks further into reclusive depression, becoming a "shadow of the girl" she once was; her hair loses its gloss, and the kids end up tethered to the television. Long hours take their toll on Robbie until he becomes an automaton, far from the sparky man who bewitched punters by singing in pubs at night.

The novel's greatest poignancy rests not in the parents but in the children whom they damage, and the timescale enables Walsh to depict the next generation as they develop – or rather, fail to develop. We see their son Vincent's anguished search for a sense of belonging as he dreams of going to Altrincham Grammar where he might be able to "reinvent himself from scratch", and find that elusive sense of a place in the world – there are enough brown kids there, he quips, for it to merit the nickname "Balti Grammar". He aspires to be a writer, picking away at the sore spots of the past while wandering Manchester's curry mile.

But 13 years on, far from transcendence and liberation, the Fitzgerald family are still trapped geographically and psychologically in a bleak landscape in which "everything is grey and grieving". It's Christmas time and Robbie begins to feel incarcerated by his wife, kids and the expectations upon him; an affair exacerbates his emotional turmoil. Lyrical sequences recount Sheila's agony at discovering that her beautiful, promising son has not turned into a bestselling writer but a drug-addicted "monster".

Walsh's trademark violence of vision governs the novel in which even hair is "flayed to crazy tumbleweed by the lash of the wind", and the thought of embarking on a day has the effect of "throttling [Robbie's] guts with dread". She resorts to excessive lyricism and frequently slips into cliché (Rusholme is "vibrant") – but nevertheless unflinchingly shows human beings consumed by a damage and hurt that turns them into the very monsters they had hoped to slay.