Where We Belong by Anstey Harris: Exploration of grief, love, friendship and courage - book review -
Still reeling from the death of her husband Richard four years ago, and now homeless and jobless, Londoner Cate Morris has been given sanctuary at a house far away from the city she knows and loves.
What makes it even worse is that the temporary refuge she has been offered for herself and her vulnerable son is an apartment in Richard’s old family home… a place that her husband detested and which she has never even seen.
But there are surprises in store because the 200-year-old quirky Kent mansion – which also houses a bizarre museum of stuffed animals set in startling tableaux – holds family secrets that are just waiting to be unearthed.
If you fell in love with Anstey Harris’ exquisitely wrought first full novel, The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton, then get your hands on this warm, funny and utterly bewitching story of a grieving woman desperately trying to fill the glaring gap in her life.
Packed with the most adorable characters and played out against a backdrop that is as enchanting as it is original, Where We Belong challenges how we view the world and the diverse people in it, and is guaranteed to break your heart and then put it back together.
Cate Morris and her 19-year-old Down’s syndrome son Leo are homeless, adrift and struggling to make ends meet after Cate was made redundant from her London teaching job. It’s a wrench leaving the city but they have packed up their boxes, said goodbye to friends and colleagues, and are on their way to Hatters Museum of the Wide Wide World in Kent to stay just for the summer.
Cate doesn’t want to go there without Richard who never even wanted to discuss his old family home, claiming it was draughty and miserable. But since Richard committed suicide, Cate has had ‘a Richard-sized hole’ in her life that she can’t fill.
The two of them were soulmates – their first meeting at university was love at first sight… ‘something utterly primal.’ But Richard suffered from chronic depression and often Cate was overwhelmed by the ‘shuddering loneliness’ of living with someone with this condition.
Richard died with unpaid debts and so now they are taking up Leo’s rightful inheritance at Hatters, the quaint museum whose dusty objects and glass-eyed, long-dead animals have been in the care of the housekeeper, Araminta Buchan, for many years.
Cate soon senses that Araminta has taken against her, but has a soft spot for straight-talking Leo. With nowhere else to go, they will have to make the best of it. But Richard didn’t tell Cate the truth about his family’s history and something about the house starts to work its way under her skin. Can she really walk away once she knows the truth?
Past and present come together in perfect harmony in Harris’ moving and sophisticated exploration of grief, love, friendship, courage, complex family relationships, and the powerful ties that bind human beings together… often more closely than we had ever imagined.
As secrets from the past rise to the surface, their exposure brings understanding in the present, and old grudges and resentments are opened up to resolution, compromise and acceptance. But it’s a painful journey for the travellers… one full of moments of darkness, raw emotions and heartbreaking discoveries.
The two lead players of this warm-hearted, evocative tale are undoubtedly Leo – the master of the literal whose child-like logic and innocent voice speaks loudly to a world grown hard and cynical – and the remarkable Hatters museum with its nostalgic charm and timeless wonders (inspired by the real-life Powell-Cotton Museum in Birchington, Kent).
Full of drama, revelations, quiet commentary, and authentic characters, and written with Harris’ elegance, insight and assurance, Where We Belong is the ideal fit for our troubled times.
(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £8.99)