Just as Deia is fully realised, so are most of the small cast of Walsh’s characters. Jenn Harding is just another middle-class, middle Englander struggling to reconcile the reality of her aging body and fading dreams with her aspirations and desires. She’d married to the seemingly dependable, rather large, Greg, an English professor at a polytechnic-turned-university with an unpublished novel, and two of them have been holidaying at the same villa in Deia for years, living out their dreams for two weeks before returning to humdrum suburbia. And then there’s Em, the pouting, bolshie teenage step-daughter whose chrysalis to butterfly transformation into womanhood pointedly juxapositions Jenn’s gentle drift into the softness of middle age. Into this typically atypical family is thrown Em’s boyfriend, Nathan: working-class confident, just tipped from adolescence to manhood, seductive and elusive, muscular and ready to explore.
Thus the scene is set for at what Stephanie Merritt, rightly called a ‘richly seductive story of forbidden lust as psychologically substantial as it is sexy’ (The Observer, February 2014). But this is not ‘mummy porn’ of the Fifty Shades of Grey sort nor a between-the-sheets romp. It is a sophisticated sexual thriller. There are explicit sex scenes, as there were in Walsh’s debut novel, Brass, a decade ago. But more often than not it is what is suggested rather than exposed that is as powerful, and Walsh guides us through the impact and consequences of giving into temptation, of breaking social boundaries and of destructive lust indulged in way that invites judgement and sympathy and forces, for me at least, some degree of self-recognition. Is Jenn a wicked step-mother of fairy tale proportions? Or a caring mother and wife only able to become herself, under vacation licence and liberated by an exotic location, by shattering glass-brittle relationships?
Nathan remains elusive, half-drawn, always seen through the disparaging and desiring eyes of others, a stark contrast to the acutely observed Em and the multi-layered Jenn. This is the real joy of the novel. Like Jenn, like Em, I wanted more of Nathan, to know more, to learn, to see: with Nathan, Walsh draws the reader in with a seduction which parallels the arc of her fable. As Nathan dances on the minds of each of the Harding family, secrets are revealed, foibles exposed and boundaries crossed with devastating consequences.
Perhaps not quite the literary masterpiece that some early reviews suggested but is it an enjoyable and rewarding read. The taste of the Lemon Grove will linger on well past the final page.
The Lemon Grove was first published (in paperback only I think) in February 2014 by Tinder Press. I was sent this book to review via Amazon.co.uk’s Vine Programme. Views are, of course, entirely my own.
Stephanie Merritt’s review of the Lemon Grove appeared in the Observer in February 2014.
Helen Walsh talks about the Lemon Grove on her own website.
London’s Metro interviewed Helen Walsh about the Lemon Grove.
Read and reviewed in August 2014
© Jessica Mulley 2014