Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Spring 1935. Two girls meet by chance on Hampstead Heath. To an outsider, they could not appear more different. Verity is well-mannered and smartly dressed, living with her parents in a beautiful house close to the heath. Ruby is dishevelled and grubby, used to a life of squalor where she is forced to steal to survive. Yet there's an instant affinity between them, and when their fortunes are shockingly reversed, it is the strength of their friendship that keeps them resilient to the challenges and hardships they face.
As Britain prepares for war, Ruby finds herself in Devon with the world at her feet and enjoying her first taste of romance. Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, Verity is forced to leave behind everything she has ever known and a shadow from the past threatens her chances of a new beginning. But through it all, the girls are always there for each other. Until the day Verity does the one thing that will break Ruby's heart.
In a country torn apart by fighting, will Verity and Ruby survive long enough to find a way back to each other? Or do some betrayals go with you to the grave...?
There's a reason Lesley Pearse has sold over 10 million copies worldwide of the 23 books she has written and that is quite simply because she is a superb storyteller that never ever disappoints. Each book is of such a high quality, I've said this several times before but I know plenty of people would agree with me. No matter what mood you are in or if you have had a run of only OK books you can be guaranteed that by picking up anything written by Lesley your reading slump will instantly vanish, your mood will improve and you will be engulfed in a story that will prove difficult to put down until you turn the very last page. It's evident with each of her books that Lesley has always carried out such in-depth research into the period she is writing about, be it modern day, World War Two or America or Australia in the past she can turn her hand to anything. Such extensive and rich detail helps the characters and setting to leap off the pages not to mention the realistic, emotional honesty that Lesley puts on every page. The plot lines are always tight and solid and never stray from what is going on meandering away from the essentials and venturing into mundane territory. Every character, scene, situation and chapter are necessary as too often in books it can feel like authors are merely filling in pages to achieve the required word count. This never happens with a book written by Lesley and this new book Dead to Me is a brilliant example confirming all that I have said above and I loved every minute of it.
Dead to Me Opens in 1935 as two girls stand on Hampstead Heath watching the police drag a man from a pond. Ruby (14) and Verity (13) both have vastly different reasons for being present and coming upon this scene. Ruby is from the slums of London living in a single room with a drunken mother, she is near the Heath to break into some rich people's houses in search of food or valuables she can pawn. Verity is from the upper classes and has escaped for a few hours from the stifling confines of her house living with a father who is always out working but when he is present little compassion or affection is ever shown. Her mother Cynthia is weak and forever getting onto Verity. From the outset it's evident that the two girls are from polar opposites of society and should never have come into contact with each other let alone forge a strong bond and friendship that will face testing times in the years to come.
The cover even suggests the contrasts between the two girls and shows how they are from opposite ends of the social spectrum. Ruby introduces Verity to the life she grinds through on a daily basis and in turn Verity attempts to show Ruby her way of life and teach her some manners and the proper way of speaking etc. But regardless of all this Ruby and Verity have a connection as if they were always destined to meet and be there for each other no matter what life struggles and hardships may be placed in their way. 'Meeting Ruby had made such a huge impact on Verity. It wasn't just that she was from a completely different way of life however fascinating that was but it felt as if she'd been intended to meet the girl for some specific reason as yet unknown to her'. It's testament to the skillful writing that the reader can believe that such a pairing could occur and their friendship and devotion to each other felt real and never forced. Life is not easy for either of the girls and we sense that there is something there at the back of Verity's mind that is niggling away at her. She is reluctant to impart what had happened but I had my suspicions and wondered how it would all pan out. Unexpected events come into play and the girls find their circumstances reversed and here is where the book came even more to life as Verity and Ruby absorb all that has happened and face the consequences as best they can.
Ruby through an unfortunate incident finds herself transported to Devon to the house of Wilby who takes in kids in need. Away from the her harsh childhood and a mother who couldn't look after herself let alone a child Ruby begins to thrive. Wilby was the mother figure every one would wish for, she had such respect, love and compassion to share with anybody who needed it. For a time the book concentrated more on Verity's situation and at one point I did think has Ruby been forgotten about except for brief mentions but as the author does bring this book through The Great Depression and the majority of World War Two, there was plenty of time to get back to Ruby and the wait was certainly worth it. That's one thing about Lesley's she never skimps on length or content. This book is long at just 450 pages but it felt like I had only picked up the book so engrossed was I in everything taking place. She also neatly slipped in worldwide events ongoing at the time which had an impact on both the girls. It wasn't bogged down in historical fact that can become tiresome to read instead it felt natural and informative.
As for Verity she goes from a life of comfort and privilege to the opposite end of the scale altogether and it is all her father's fault. Money and greed play a major factor and soon Archie Wood is on the run and Verity is left to pick up the pieces and become the mother figure that Cynthia hasn't the where with all to be. Now forced to live with Aunt Hazel who reluctantly takes them in Verity sees the other side of life and has to grow up quick. I can't say that I preferred Ruby over Verity or vice versa but Verity to me was the character who went through the biggest journey and transformation. Her eyes were opened to the realities of life but at all times she held her head high and made the best of whatever situation was presented to her. She took everything in her stride and though she may have felt down about her situation and also fear and loneliness crept in as things go from bad to worse she was determined to weather the storm and triumph over adversity. She was not one for whining or complaining instead she sought any opportunity to make ends meet or make improvements no matter how big or small. She was an admirable character who never let things wear her down ad I wished she would find some sort of happiness amidst all the upheaval and outside forces at work.
The Dead to Me referred to in the title comes from a note sent from Ruby to Verity and came out of nowhere. I could understand Ruby's reasoning but felt it was a bit over the top and tested their friendship to the extreme. Lack of communication and misunderstood actions saw a divide that should never have happened. The blurb of this book asks the question will Ruby and Verity survive long enough to find their way back to one another? Well certainly their characters are tested to the max with the onslaught of World War Two. Again the author writes very vividly of how the everyday person copes with the challenges presented to them and the constant state of fear they must have lived with on a daily basis. The story again picked up a gear during this period and coupled with a more sinister force made for a very gripping read where the reader is nervous as to how things can resolve themselves in the face of danger, greed and revenge. Of course every Lesley Pearse needs some romance thrown in and again it is present here but not the sole focus of the book not that it needed to be. I think world events coupled with the friendship between Verity and Ruby and all they were forced to endure should have taken centre stage and they did with great depth, honesty and emotion. All the characters and plot twists made for another deeply satisfying read that confirms Lesley Pearse is one of those authors whose books you instantly rush out and buy on publication day no questions asked no consideration given.
Lesley Pearse is a naturally gifted storyteller and it's not every author you can say this about and truly mean it. She is my absolute favourite author and with this new book she has only reaffirmed all the good things I constantly say about her and all the recommendations of her back catalogue I make to friends. My one and only complaint regarding Dead to Me is that I read it far, far too quickly (even though I had it in my possession for a few weeks I had been keeping it for when I got my summer holidays) and I really should have eked it out and savoured it a bit more. For now I have a long wait for what will incredibly be Lesley Pearse's 25th novel. For those who have never read anything by this wonderful author don't hesitate to pick up Dead to Me. It's a riveting story which highlights the true power and bonds of friendship and even though Ruby and Verity may have come from polar opposites of life it demonstrated how friendship and love can win out over anything else that may be thrown in your path. Fans will not be disappointed in the slightest instead you will want more, more, more. New readers will delight in this read and eagerly reach for another book in Lesley's extensive repertoire. Thank you Lesley for continuing to write such stunning books that I never want to leave out of my hands. I'm looking forward to number 25 already.
Many thanks to Emma Draude from ed_pr for my copy of Dead to Me to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.