The Widow's Tale, By Mick Jackson

Outsider's truths that hit home

Bereavement is nobody's idea of a barrel of laughs, let alone bereavement on the north Norfolk coast in a freezing January. Mick Jackson's third novel is more amusing than it has any right to be. His narrator – a well-off woman in her sixties – has lasted two months in London since the death of her husband. In a moment of panic, she flees the empty house and powers up the M11 in the dead man's Jaguar.

She finds a small fisherman's cottage to rent, and starts to sink into herself, as if to find out who, if anybody, she is - now that she's not somebody's wife. There are no children, no siblings, and few friends to offer more than the most basic support. Instead there are walks on the salt marshes, evenings in the pub, and days spent staring at the fire. And writing, for it's her own reflections that Jackson gives us, as she tries to fathom her past, annotate her present, and glean what her future might be.

Plot there is none, beyond the revelation of an affair, and the teetering possibility that she might be heading for a full-scale breakdown. This is, though, an immensely compelling read. It came as a shock to realise that we don't know the woman's name when it's easy to feel that we know her inside and out.

It helps that the book is as funny as it is moving, as if grief has given her the licence to pronounce with caustic hauteur on the world. There is a particularly good running gag on the birdwatchers she encounters on the marshes ("ornithological paparazzi"). Armed with a pair of binoculars, she tries to fit in. "I plucked a couple of birds' names out of thin air and pointed down the path... The birders both stood and stared right back at me. As if I were drunk. Or deranged. I can't even remember what birds I claimed to have spotted. But I think there's a good chance they were specimens which are currently meant to be nesting in the Arctic. Or South America. Or possibly completely new birds that I'd just invented, by combining bits of other birds' names."

If this sounds like a sophisticated stand-up comedy routine, it is more than balanced by sections where the wound is touched, and the pain re-awoken. The obsessive sifting of the past and coastal location made me think of John Banville's The Sea, but this is an easier book to like. Once read, it will not be forgotten, but will sit on the shelf, patiently waiting to read again.