If we were pressed for a single phrase that summed up "The Other Mrs Walker" by Mary Paulson-Ellis, it would be something along the lines of: "it's unlike anything else we've ever read before." The thing is, that tells you nothing about whether its "unlikeness" makes it worth reading or not. So let's get that out of the way immediately. This is one of the most enthralling and engaging books we've read in quite some time, and an enormously enjoyable one. It should be read by everyone.
Saying what we think of this book is the easy part. Saying why we like it so much is rather harder. At the heart of the book is a mystery. Not the sort of mystery you find in thrillers or whodunits, but an utterly compelling mystery nonetheless. There are no murders, and the crimes that do occur are not the usual stuff of Tartan Noir. Someone does die, yes. But quietly, sadly and alone, and of natural causes, though of exactly which natural cause is debatable. The old lady who breathes her last in a cold Edinburgh flat in the harsh winter weather of late December 2010 spills her final glass of whisky on the floor as she dies, and is missed by no-one.
From one lost soul we move to another. Margaret Penny arrives in Edinburgh in early January 2011 on a coach from London. She is fleeing the tatters of a life she worked hard for decades to build, and then so suddenly lost. Seeking to establish herself anew from her base in her unwelcoming mother's box-room, she finds a job tracking down the identities and stories, and if possible relatives prepared to contribute to funeral expenses, of those who die alone. Margaret is given the case of the old lady to resolve, and follows the sparse and incredibly fragile trail of evidence to wherever it will take her, which in the first instance is back to London.
This is a book about secrets, and the huge impact they can have on the lives of those who keep them and on others too. Mary Paulson-Ellis's remarkable debut novel tells its story by alternating between Margaret's search in January 2011 and scenes set at various times from 1929 onwards, through World War Two, and then through the 60s and 70s. The picture that emerges is of a deeply dysfunctional family in which tragedy seems a constant companion. These scenes from the past mean that for much of the book the reader is a step or two, or more, ahead of Margaret in her efforts to work out the old lady's story. But even though parts of the mystery are laid bare, other parts are not, and much of the attraction comes from the desire to understand how the strands from the past connect with the reality of a wintry Edinburgh in early 2011. Even when you think you know the central secret at the heart of everything that's happened, there's a tension as you urge Margaret on to discover it too, and then there's a lovely final twist we'll leave you to discover for yourself.