Reviewed by Emma Crowley
In just a few heartbreaking days, Lexy Shaw's world has fallen apart. After her mother is killed in a tragic hit-and-run, her mother's childhood guardian, Ursula, also dies suddenly, leaving everything to Lexy. But as Lexy reads through Ursula's hidden papers, what she discovers raises doubts about her own identity and if she really is now all alone in the world.
Desperate to find out if she has any surviving family, Lexy travels to Africa hoping she can unravel the mystery she's now tormented by, only to find that she's stumbled into a past full of lies and deceit and that her life is in grave danger.
Ursula's Secret is the début novel from Mairi Wilson and winner of the Sunday Mail Fiction Prize for 2015. Described as part detective thriller part emotional journey, the blurb for this book was instantly appealing and knowing it was going to be partly set in Malawi I thought it was going to be a very interesting read. If you were judging this book straight away based on the cover you would presume you were in for a nice, light, easy romance read, this couldn't be further from the truth as Mairi Wilson takes her readers on one hell of a journey that proved very hard to put down. It's easy to see why this won the award as there is something strangely compelling in the story of a young girl seeking to uncover the truth and discover just exactly who she is. I’ll confess to not being a huge fan of the detective/murder/thriller genre and did have my doubts as to whether I would really enjoy this book. Ursula’s Secret doesn't have a real gory element nor a heavy police involvement, instead a secret waiting to be uncovered after so many years hidden is at the heart of this novel. A secret which had me guessing right up until the end as the story grew and grew and became ever more twisted in its explanation, finally culminating in a tense, electrifying conclusion.
You would think the premise of the story sounds simple enough, Lexy Shaw is still reeling from the death of her mother Isobel when her mother's former guardian Ursula also dies. OK straight forward enough as Lexy travels to Edinburgh to wrap up Ursula's affairs and tidy up the flat. Lexy wants to get the business concluded as quick as possible, she needs to move on from the recent trauma in her life as well as from the breakup of her relationship with Danny who is a junior lecturer. Typically he had been having an affair and said woman is now pregnant much to the dismay of Lexy. Whilst Lexy is looking through the flat, memories coming flooding back of some happy times spent visiting Ursula with her mother. But these visits tapered off as Isobel had fallen out with Ursula. But the question still remains – what could have caused such a massive falling out after everything Ursula did in bringing up Isobel? Lexy must visit Ursula's solicitor after all she is the sole beneficiary of her estate now that there is only herself remaining. What she hears here leaves her stunned and faced with plenty of questions that she needs answers to in order to move forward with her life. What if there was the possibility she is not the orphan she believed she now was? Are there relatives waiting out there to be found or do they wish to left alone? Lexy takes on the quest for the truth and this mission will take her deep into the heart of sweltering Malawi and back again to cold Edinburgh. Alot of water flows under the bridge before the true nature of what has happened in the past will reveal itself.
This book is just full of questions that had me turning the pages rapidly. Even after reading just a few chapters so much had happened and I will admit to two minor faults with the first couple of chapters. It felt like the author had told us pieces of information but she hadn't. We were supposed to know what had happened previously but it hadn't been said because surely I wouldn't have forgotten that quickly. Secondly there were so many characters introduced that I did become confused. When Lexy was looking through a photograph album of Ursula's from her time spent working as a nurse in Malwai in the 1940's there were countless people mentioned and I didn't have a clue who they were or what connection they had to the main characters. These were the only faults I found with the book but over time they did resolve themselves and everything become clear but it took us an awful lots of twists, turns and complications to get there. But I'm not complaining as these kept me on my toes and guessing as to the final outcome, one I never thought possible on reading the blurb.
When Lexy travels to Africa she is almost an innocent in a way believing all she has to do is read the letters and diary belonging to Ursula and she will unlock a story that many have attempted to cover up. On the other hand I do have to admire Lexy's persistence, so much was thrown at her and she never quite knew who to trust or believe. Could Doctor Robert be trustworthy or was he only there to protect his grandmother Evie Campell and his own interests? Just who is Richard Chakanaya and what role does he have to play in this story? Coupled with the fact her home back in London has been ransacked Lexy begins to wonder just what she has gotten herself involved in? This book wouldn’t have had the same impact if we were left solely reading of Lexy in the present day. It needed to go back to the past to give the reader an insight into the lives of Ursula and her friends back in the 1940's. Interspersed throughout are flashbacks and detailed sections of Ursula and the situation she finds herself in. A complicated love for a man who to my mind was just pure evil, a scoundrel, a rogue, a cheat, dishonest and abhorrent. His actions reverberate throughout the book and have the most far reaching of consequences for all the players involved. We come to know a little of Ursula's friends Helen and Evie and once Lexy digs deeper she uncovers a past of lies, betrayal and deceit a past which if comes to light in the present day will place her in the utmost of danger. But her steely determination and gut instincts make her push on no matter how intimidated or frightened she feels by those around her. She just needs to learn to put her trust in the right person who won't betray her confidence. I can't even begin to give you any more insight as to the plot of this book as you now have the general idea and so much happens that I did have to concentrate to keep track . Needless to say what started out as a tidying up of an old woman's affairs turns into something a whole lot bigger and sinister than one would first think.
Ursula's Secret is really a just one more chapter kind of book and then you found you've read over a 100 or so pages and it's all hours of the night. I'm not quite sure as to what made this so absorbing as there were so many characters that I never actually pinpointed one I could really engage or connect to. There was the sheer volume of writing as well several pages to explain something when a paragraph or two would have sufficed. Saying that I was hooked and had to keep going until I knew the final outcome. In fact I think I slowed down a bit towards the end because I didn't want the book to finish. I just wanted more secrets to spill out. Just when you think you had it all figured out another major curve ball was presented putting you once again tight off track and maybe it was the inquisitive side of me that was there step by step with Lexy. I was as eager as her to unearth her true heritage. Do watch out for every character though no matter how inconsequential they may seem as no one is above suspicion.
Ursula's Secret is packed full of tension, questions, problems, secrecy and intrigue right until the concluding chapter. The reader is kept guessing and alert and I loved that element. Do not fooled by the cover this book deserves to reach a wide audience. Don't let it pass you by as it proved to be real page turner and a surprisingly good find as we hurtle towards the end of the publishing year.
Many thanks to Black and White publishing for sending me a copy of Ursula's Secret to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog