Reviewed by Emma Crowley
When Alice's husband Ben dies suddenly, her world falls apart. They shared twenty years and two daughters and life without him is unimaginable.
Having lost her parents while young, Alice understands her girls' pain. At fifteen, Jools is at that awkward age and only Ben could get through to her. And eleven-year-old Holly looks for the answer to everything in books but this time she's drawing a blank. Alice realizes that for their sakes she must summon up superhuman reserves of strength.
Somehow all three of them come through the dark days. In time, it's even possible for Alice to consider marrying again, with the girls' blessing. So when Ben turns up after three years, her world is again turned upside-down. The girls assume that their family can go back to the way they were. Alice is not so sure.
Once more Alice has to find the strength to be the mother her daughters need her to be. But this time what that means is far from clear...
Incredibly The Way We Were is the eleventh full length novel from Sinead Moriarty and unquestionably it is her best, it simply blew everything else she has written out of the water. I have loved Sinead's books right from the very beginning when she released The Baby Trail. You can really see with this new book how much her writing has matured, it seems to have moved up a whole new gear. Judging from the cover I was expecting a nice easy read about relationships etc. Instead I got a gripping, at times harrowing, thought provoking, gritty story that will stay with me for quite some time. Split into three distinct sections that come together wonderfully The Way We Were is a story of relationships and the love, loyalty, compassion, dedication and respect we have for each other. We may be torn apart by the most cruelest of circumstances in our lives but love will always conquer all.
The book opens as Alice Gregory is at her engagement party to multi-millionaire Dan. Dan says 'Second chances are hard to come by in life and I'm grabbing this one with with both hands. Here's to new beginnings with the most wonderful woman in the world'. Alice is embracing her second chance but should she still be thinking about her first chance? As Dan's older daughter Stella and Alice's children Jools and Holly look on with pleasure, a phone call disturbs the some what happy scene. A phone call that will change everything that they have been through over the past number of years. Alice's husband Ben is not after all dead from a land mine explosion in Eritrea. In fact he is very much alive and on his way back to the family he longed for during his days of imprisonment. Just what has Alice gotten herself into? Engaged to Dan and Ben about to walk back into their lives. A huge decision needed to be made, a total quandary of the heart and soul. One I would not rather have had to make myself.
Part one takes us back in time to London October 2012, Alice and her husband Ben are a typical everyday family beset by the pressures life and work can bring. Alice is a GP running a very successful surgery with her brother Kevin as her medical secretary. Ben is a top surgeon in his field, a workaholic who is always craving the next buzz and wants to remain at the top of his game. Their children Jools 15 and Holly 11 are two girls who have the usual relationship young sisters have. Holly was the stand out star of this book, a very clever girl who forever had her head in a book and could give you information on a range of topics slipped effortlessly into any conversation the adults may have been having. She was funny but she didn't realise it but yet had a more vulnerable side too. When she is in pain and suffering she relies on her calculator to work out hours and minutes from when events occurred. It acts as a form of comfort for her 'Working out numbers helps to stop my head hurting. I can't do anything about my heart, it feels as if it was squashed by something heavy, but if I do numbers my head hurts a bit less'. Jools' hormones are raging and she seems to be against the world forever engaging in arguments with Alice. Really her whole personality was bravado, an act to cover her deepest feelings and the fact she does find school more challenging than her brainbox of a sister but who wants to admit that? Poor Alice feels like she is rearing the girls singlehandedly as Ben swans in at the last moment and gets all the glory and to experience the nicer aspects of parenting.
So when Ben decides work as a surgeon is not enough for him just now and a chance to operate on a minister in Eritrea presents itself he jumps at the opportunity. Initially Ben came across as just arrogant and cocky, viewing his job as far superior to that of Alice's. He was selfish in his decision to leave behind his family and pursue his own ambitions and I slightly detested him for that. Readers would be forgiven he got his comeuppance but really his family are left devastated by his death alongside colleague Declan and Alice is the one left to pick up the pieces and somehow unbearably forge ahead with a new life and make her daughters the best they possibly can be. Never before have I seen a character as in Ben go through such a transformation through all he endures and suffers and I found myself changing my opinion of him as the novel progressed. The scenes in Eritrea were astoundingly well written and the author has shed light on a country and conflict that years ago you may have seen on the news but have now long forgotten. The scenes were disturbing but in fact a reality of conflict. Nicely balanced alongside the gravity of the situation was the humour especially from Irish lad Declan. I felt the men's pain and torment yet their will and determination to get back to the ones they loved and cared for shone through.
How can Alice possibly cope with the loss of her husband, her friend, her lover, her confidant, her everything, the father of her two girls? There had been tension and unease between them recently but that was not to say things wouldn't have smoothed themselves out. Alice sinks into a zone that will be difficult to bring her back from but she must be strong for the sake of her children. Kevin was such a support to Alice and the girls and his character was brilliantly written he had me laughing out loud with his antics and sayings in his long term quest to find a man that he could spend the rest of his life with. Yet when his softer side was needed most he was there and his words of advice and comfort were just what was called for. For some reason I just couldn't warm to Alice and that was right from the beginning not just from when trauma besets her life. It's not that her character wasn't written that well. In fact all the characters were excellent and fitted well into the novel. There was something a bit cold about her in my mind anyway. I did feel the loss of Ben was devastating for her but when she meets Dan it all felt a bit surreal and fake, I did think others were carrying her for a while and she needed to dig very deep to come back to the surface and see that Holly and Jools were suffering and needed her. 'You're just living. You can either sit still and be miserable for ever or move on'. I don't blame her in the least for moving on and trying to find happiness after much grieving and reflection in dark dark days. But there was even more choices and decisions to come in the future that would put her to the test. The girls think it's an easy choice but is it really? Alice was put in an unenviable position and I genuinely (thankfully) had no clue how this would all pan out as a lot had to unfold before a stunning conclusion could be reached. One in which when the connection to the title became apparent made me melt just that little bit.
In the acknowledgements at the end of this book Sinead Moriarty mentions The Way We Were was a book she had wanted to write for a long time. I could sense this as I read the book as it was clear her everything had gone in to the writing of this incredible novel. She said she was nervous about the Eritrean scenes and the surgeries. I can understand how she felt this way because at times I did feel the technical jargon and gruesome details of the operations was a bit much but on reflection it really needed to be there to show just what Ben and Declan were going through. Earlier in her writing career this would have put readers off and truthfully Sinead wouldn't have been known for this kind of book then. Now that she is a very well established author she could just let go and write the book she had wanted to.
Gone are the days of the nice easy reads like The Baby Trail - yes the subject matter was relevant and dealt with very well in that book- but with this new novel Sinead really has stepped up her game and I found there to be echoes of Jodi Picoult here. I'd love to see the author writing more gritty books like this. It's a great direction she has moved in and she deserved to win the Bord Gáis book award last year. The Way We were was powerful, deep, raw, honest, emotional and I absolutely loved it. The writing and characterisation was superb throughout, so much thought, time and effort went into every line. There were so many lines I stopped and reread to absorb their meaning for life and in relation to what they brought to the story. Sinead has shown she is a force to be reckoned with and if this is the kind of book she will now write in the future I for one can't wait to see what happens next. With the long Easter weekend approaching The Way We Were should be firmly on your reading list.
I'd like to thank Emma for her fantastic review of The Way We Were which we received from the publisher via NetGalley.