Review – Faithful, by Alice Hoffman

I read this book in one sitting. This is not something I say or write often – in fact, I can’t remember the time I genuinely sat down with a book and didn’t get up again until I had finished it.

This is testament to the quality of this book – although to be fair, I was on holiday at the time and had a whole day to spend by the pool. Even so, it takes a lot for book to hold me so firmly that I lose my sense of time and place; this book did that.

The storyline is not easy – in fact, the main character Shelby is so infuriatingly self-destructive that at times I wanted to slap her. Granted, she is almost fatally damaged by the seminal event at the start of the story (a car crash which left her best friend Helene in a permanent coma, but from which she escaped with only minor injuries) – the guilt and horror destroy many years of her life, leaving her broken and only gradually able to emerge from her protective burrow (her parents’ basement). The narrative describes her gradual process of re-engagement with the world and the friendships and relationships she forges (and destroys).

This is a study of guilt, mental health and recovery, love and friendship, but not of redemption – although Shelby does rescue a succession of ill and maltreated dogs, there is never any sense that she is trying to redeem herself. In fact, the sense is that redemption could only come if a miracle happens and Helene somehow rises from her bed in her parents’ house where she has lain for eight years. Against hope Shelby imagines this happening when she eventually visits Helene and holds her hand, in an echo of the healing miracles which Helene herself is alleged to perform.

In fact, the most powerful sections of the book deal with Shelby’s relationship with her mother Sue, who is tireless and fierce in her defence and care of her broken daughter. Hoffman writes this relationship from Shelby’s perception of it, and these were some of the points where I wanted to shake Shelby and point out her mother’s unflinching and clear-eyed love for her, even when she herself was doing her best to destroy it.

This book is not perfect – I have some issues with it, largely the overpowering Christian imagery and the unlikely coincidence whereby Shelby finally meets the ‘angel’ who has watched over her since the accident. Nevertheless it is a moving read, well written and infused with Hoffman’s absorbing and sometimes dreamlike prose style. Highly recommended.

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I am grateful to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for providing an ARC in return for an unbiased review. Faithful is published on 1 November 2016.

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