The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes (2018): Ruth Hogan

★★★

Masha has been trapped in the past for twelve years, ever since her young son toddled away from her and drowned in a tragic accident. When she goes to the lido every morning, it isn’t to swim, to make her body strong, but to force herself underwater and to stay to the very point of drowning, so that she can understand what he would have felt. When she visits her loyal, supportive friends – playing the part of a functioning grown-up – everyone knows that there are some subjects which must be avoided. One of the few ways that Masha finds peace is in her daily walk through the rambling local cemetery, with her lolloping dog Haizum, where she conjures up fanciful histories for the people whose graves she passes. And it’s here, in the cemetery, that she encounters an eccentric old woman who, quite unexpectedly, opens Masha’s eyes to the possibility of joy. This is a heartwarming tale of old friends, new friends and new starts, which sometimes strays dangerously close to being mawkish, but might well leave a tear in your eye.

Somewhere across town, Alice lives with her teenage son Mattie. While Masha is trying to come to terms with the loss of her son, Alice is struggling with the prospect of losing hers. She and Mattie have always been a team and Alice has loved him fiercely, tenaciously, focusing all her energies on protecting the one precious child who arrived after a spate of miscarriages. But now Mattie is growing up and becoming more independent, tugging at the bonds that were formerly so tight between them, and Alice herself is newly aware of living on borrowed time. How can she make everything right?

Most of our time, however, is spent with Masha as she strolls in the cemetery, visiting her favourite graves and watching the batty old woman who she’s christened Sally Red Shoes. Sally feeds the crows and sometimes sings, but is just as likely to come out with a foul-mouthed tirade when approached (delivered, however, with a radiant smile). Their friendship, at first cautious, develops in tandem with changes elsewhere in Masha’s life. Her beloved friend Edward has fallen in love, and Masha herself is fascinated by a fellow swimmer at the lido. Does she dare to change? Does change mean betrayal for those left behind, or is there another way to remember? Sally Red Shoes thinks there is. As she tells Masha in one of her more lucid moments, ‘When the music ends for someone you love you don’t stop dancing. You dance for them as well.’ Masha considers. She dares to take the first small step out of her claustrophobic world of loss. And that step offers her a key to a world that’s suddenly full of possibility, inhabited by wonderful and inspirational people who might just give Masha the courage to love and live again.

I couldn’t help feeling that there was something rather Working Title about this novel. It tells the story of prosperous people who don’t seem to go to work very much and, when they do, turn out to have chic professions, working in elegant offices with cheerfully offbeat colleagues. The plot unfurls through dinner parties, social comedy and amateur dramatics, and the heroine has a gang of loving but quirky friends who nudge her towards self-fulfilment. Some plot developments are visible from a mile away. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I like Working Title films: I watch Love Actually every Christmas. But, if you don’t gel with that particular brand of cosy sentimentality, this novel might not be to your taste: just a warning. Personally, I did enjoy it. I warmed to the secondary characters, especially Kitty Muriel, with her glamour and optimism, and Masha is well-crafted, even if it took me longer to bond with her. For me, the weakest part of the plot was Alice’s story, which feels very one-dimensional compared to the richer story woven around Masha. Alice herself is more plot device than character, and the end of the story feels too much like the careful tying up of loose ends – though Hogan deals with a momentous development delicately and well, by keeping it off-stage.

Oddly enough, the main legacy of this book has been to give me a new appreciation of cemeteries. Thanks to the lockdown, we’ve rediscovered our own local cemeteries as good places to walk and relax, and I’ve started looking more closely at the names and stories on the stones (discovering some immensely poor Victorian poetry in the process). I love the idea of creating personalities and histories for people who are now little more than a name, and Masha’s flights of fancy are delightful. When the lockdown is over and we can travel more freely, I’d love to head out to the sprawling Victorian cemeteries at Highgate and Kensal Rise, to do some exploring for myself.

A warm, generous, resolutely ‘feel good’ book, compassionate and full of hope. In grim times like the present, maybe this is exactly what you need.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

2 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes (2018): Ruth Hogan

  1. Kerstin says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who has (re)discovered cemeteries as great places for a walk during the lockdown 🙂 My latest happy discovery is Hampstead Cemetery – so full of quirky, interesting, and yes, cheesy monuments… Do go and visit Highgate when these places open again! I did the guided tour last year, which was fabulous and gave insights into such a variety of fascinating stories. It’s such an atmospheric place too. Kensal Green does guided tours too – however, while I’ve been back recently for walks, it’s been, umm, over 20 years apparently that I did the tour, so I can’t say what it’s like now…

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