Reviewed by Alice Farrant
Mona lives a quiet life as a dollmaker. At face value she appears to be an ordinary woman, but in private she runs a side-service helping grieving mothers overcome the loss of a child. As she begins a new romance she is pulled back to her past in 70s Birmingham where she met the enigmatic William. For a while, their lives were perfect, until an unexpected loss tore them apart.
Split between the present-day and Mona’s youth, The Trick To Time spins back to recount past events as present day events remind Mona of her past. Older Mona feels stuck and unyielding, yearning to recover from something that is yet to be revealed. Younger Mona is an insular adventurer, escaping Ireland for the hustle and bustle of Birmingham.
De Waal, a child of the 70s, grew up in Birmingham, where her mother was a foster carer and auxiliary nurse. As with her debut novel, My Name is Leon (de Waal was a family law magistrate, sits on adoption boards, and has written manuals for adoption and foster care) de Waal drew from her and her mother’s past to write a textured story of life as an Irish woman in 70s Britain.
At first glance, you may mistake The Trick To Time for your standard supermarket paperback. On closer inspection, de Waal uses a conventional romance to discuss themes such as mental health, prenatal/neonatal care, grief, and the IRA and Hibernophobia. The depth of the story may not be visible at first, but with each new insight into Mona’s life, the more nuanced the novel becomes. These are intricate themes, ingrained into the story for the reader to absorb consciously and unconsciously.
Mona and William are as close to perfect as their idyllic, potentially naive, lives could get. They daydream together, imagining fanciful scenarios in which they could go in life. A tactic Mona will use later when helping women who have lost their children to move on from death. William is an enormous character, swooping up Mona and protecting her from the life of loss she has known. But, William is also fragile, with the massive highs come swooping lows. His mood swings become more apparent the longer the couple are together, but it isn’t until the IRA bombings that William is pushed over the edge.
The Birmingham Pub bombings of 1974, where two pubs were bombed, killed 21 and injured 182 people. It would be easy to read this book and let these bombings pass you by, however, they are a pivotal moment for William and Mona. The night of William’s beating and mental breakdown, and the night Mona loses their child, William is punished for being Irish by young Englishman raging for vengeance.
Introverted, stubborn with a well-developed imagination, Mona is an easily likeable character. Without siblings, she roamed the beaches, unable to understand the illness inflicting her mother. She seems to have a fairly standard life, but by the age of twenty, Mona has lost her mother, father, child and husband. Yet, after losing so much, she shows caring, strength and determination. Mona doesn’t act to drive her own wants and desires, but others in an effort to keep some sort of family around her.
As much as this is a book about love, I didn’t feel like it needed to end with Mona and William reunited (the ending is ambiguous on that front), but able to grieve for their daughter which, due to William’s circumstances, neither were able to do.
‘Remember what you said now, Mona. You have to have a life. Your words, not Mine.’
Mona is the sole focus of the book. While I understand this is important in the confines of the story de Waal is telling I would have liked to have read more about William and his childhood. I understood William’s situation, I understood that he couldn’t help his actions, but I didn’t like him, and I wanted to. More insight into who he was would have helped that.
If you lost the love of your life, what would you do to live again?
Reading the tagline of the book, without the knowledge of its context you may think that this is merely a love story. Two people separated who need to learn to move on. Finishing The Trick To Time gives it a new meaning. “If you lost the love of your life, what would you do to live again?” What does the love of your life mean, your partner or your child? Mona loses both, and as much as she helps others to cope with the loss of their child and move on she isn’t allowed to until William steps up and lets her. After this healing can they love again? Each other, other people, or perhaps even themselves?
de Waal, Kit The Trick To Time, (Viking: London, 2018). 978-0241207109 272pp., hardback.