Prepare to be drawn in at the very outset of this charming novel by debut author Eleanor Ray. In recent years, a few memorable and compelling characters have appeared in fiction. Unreliable narrators, they have lost touch with themselves and others. They live lonely lives, are misunderstood and don’t quite fit in.
Characters such as Rachel Joyce’s Harold Fry and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant endeared themselves to readers and turned their creators into bestselling authors. A similar, if more haughty, personality was Charles Arrowby, in Iris Murdoch’s 1978 novel The Sea, The Sea.
Now a new character is set to be warmly received into their ranks: Amy Ashton, Ray’s protagonist in Everything is Beautiful.
Amy is an office manager for a firm of financial advisers, where she has worked for 17 years. People seem kind to her but she keeps to herself and her desk is devoid of any personal effects. She is always dressed in black or grey. We learn a lot about Amy from people around her. At home, her neighbours seem unreasonable and nosey but then we find that Amy is a hoarder. She keeps just enough space to reach her washing machine and her iron. Newspapers are stacked from floor to ceiling and her collection of beloved items means she hasn’t seen her floors in years.
If you’ve ever watched those TV programmes about hoarders, there is nearly always an underlying trauma behind their emotional attachment to belongings that the rest of the world views as clutter.
It soon becomes clear that Amy too has suffered in the past. Her collection began with a shoebox of memories, as recommended by a counsellor, but now it has grown to fill every room in her house and her front and back gardens.
It all began 11 years ago when her boyfriend Tim disappeared on the same day as her best friend Chantel. Although police and friends came to the conclusion that Tim and Chantel didn’t want to be found, Amy has always felt that Tim would not desert her. She has clung to the hope he would return.
She gradually stopped contacting Chantel’s mother and Tim’s friends. Having lost faith in people, she turned to things instead and, although she vaguely knows it is a problem, she can’t let go of anything.
When new neighbours move in next door they become key to helping Amy. One of their children gets into her overgrown garden and is almost killed when one of her towers of flowerpots topples. As she trawls through the remains of her broken pots, Amy finds a distinctive engagement ring that only Tim could have bought for her and a letter written by Chantel which has been partially destroyed by being outdoors in a flowerpot — a pot that used to be in her front hallway 11 years ago. To Amy, the ring confirms that Tim would not have left her and she is determined to find out more. As she befriends the family next door, the expectations are that she will find happiness and learn to get rid of the clutter, but the story takes a much more sinister turn.
Several surprises and startling twists later, with those piles of newspapers contributing to a showdown worthy of a Jeffery Deaver thriller, the mystery unravels.
The novel is beautifully written and full of compassion, kindness and hope. From the beginning, it rings with humour to lighten the themes of sadness and trauma that pervade Amy’s life. Readers will empathise with her character all the way to the end.
Everything is Beautiful is a good example of “uplit”, a relatively new term to describe warm, uplifting literature. It looks sure to join others of this genre and put Eleanor Ray on the bestsellers list.
Fiction: Everything is Beautiful by Eleanor Ray
Piatkus, 320 pages, hardcover €14.99; e-book £3.99