Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Every family has a story…
But for the Guinness family a happy ending looks out of reach. Olly and Mae's marriage is crumbling, their teenage daughter Evie is on a mission to self-destruct and their beloved Pops is dying of cancer. Their once strong family unit is slowly falling apart.
But Pops has one final gift to offer his beloved family – a ray of hope to cling to. As his life's journey draws to a close, he sends his family on an adventure across Europe in a camper van, guided by his letters, his wisdom and his love.
Because Pops knows that all his family need is time to be together, to find their love for each other and to find their way back home…
It was only late last year that I finally got around to reading a book from Carmel Harrington, I had only ever heard great things about this writer and they all proved true as I adored Every Time a Bell Rings. Now she is back with The Things I should Have Told You following the Guinness family’s adventure around Europe in a modern camper van. But this is not just any old holiday where the reader follows the madcap events that could befall a family abroad and in a confined space instead this is an in-depth, emotional voyage of self discovery, forgiveness and acceptance. An adventure that will see each member undergo a transformation of sorts, be it subtle or major, but all very much needed and all under the guidance of Pops through his inspirational letters which come at just the moment when needed most.
Right from the prologue Carmel’s talent shines through in such beautiful emotive writing that has you reaching for the pen to take note of some quotes as they are so inspirational and meaningful and strike a chord with the reader. ’Our lives are just a series of moments. From the small mundane occasions that we let pass by without notice, to the big showstoppers that make us pause and take note. Then, when you least expect it, a moment so powerful and defining happens that changes everything in a split second. The thing about change is, it’s not always good’. For the Guinness family a combination of events leads to this moment when change occurs and although it is not a happy occasion it may just turn out to be one of the most fruitful, positive experiences they will ever experience.
The Guinness family are at a crossroads each of them, maybe bar youngest son Jamie who just enjoys life and superheroes, has something they are hiding or just feelings they are not willing to let out in the open. Olly is 40 and married to Mae who is a school principal tied to her job and slightly fed up with the way her marriage is going. Olly is a stay at home husband ever since he lost his job. He has given up on finding a new job and resigned himself to staying at home - running the household, taking care of the kids and his ailing father Pops. But now the balance of power has shifted within the marriage Olly can feel Mae slipping away from him. Has she had enough? Is Olly not the man she once married.? Olly has events in the past which still linger long in his mind which affect his everyday thinking. Initially and perhaps for quite a lot of the book I found Mae to be very standoffish. She snapped at Olly and never seemed to agree with him over anything instead creating obstacles or opposition where there was really no need to cause arguments. It was almost like she wanted to create friction with Olly so she had a way out and could give reasons if everything did implode. I know she may have felt like she was surrendering her role but her actions made it difficult for me to warm to her. I felt sorry for Olly that he had to deal with Mae and her changing attitudes and offhand behaviour. He must have been feeling downgraded in way that he had lost his job and had to stay at home. It was like losing some of his masculinity. There is nothing wrong at all being a house husband but the reader senses it hasn’t done any good for the overall sake of the family. Then we have 13 year old Evie who has drunk herself into such a stupor she has ended up in hospital. I found this totally and utterly shocking that someone could so young could be driven to do something destructive but as the reasons became clear my sympathies only grew for Evie.
So the Guinness family are disjointed and lacking unity and the basic family connections that had held them together for so long. In steps the wonderful Pops who sets a plan in motion just before he passes. This is his last gift to the family he can see how things are falling apart and he hates to see the people he loves so dearly and who looked after him so well falling apart at the seams for want of talking and spending time together. Arriving home one day the family find a state of the art camper van parked in the driveway and are more than surprised to discover they are the proud owners of the van and there are letters too. Pops has been hard at work and has arranged a tour of Europe for the family. At certain points they will receive a letter with where to go next and what to do. These letters brought such humour and warmth to story. Pops may have been gone but he shone through in the words he had written. Essential advice alongside the instructions comes at just the time in the adventure when the family need it most and I found myself looking forward to reading the letters to see where would the family visit next and what they would get up to.
The addition of a map at the front outlining the family’s journey was great and I think this piece of advice from Pops is perhaps the most poignant of all considering the fractions within Olly and Mae’s marriage. ‘Life is short. So don’t spend it regretting what you should have said, to those you care about. If you love someone, say so! Not just with words mind but in your actions too. Leaving nothing unsaid’. A trip in camper van for weeks cooped up with my family sounds like an absolute nightmare to me but Carmel makes this work and you find yourself laughing along with the family and enjoying all their exploits as they journey through Europe and with each step further they take away from all their troubles back in Ireland the more they begin to open up and express their feelings, share their issues, insecurities and problems and begin to listen to Pops advice. They slowly start to understand it’s better not to leave things bottled up or unsaid as it will only eat you up and cause conflict.
Carmal Harrington can certainly write an excellent story but where she excels is with her character development. She totally gets inside the heads of each member of the Guinness family and the reader quickly finds themselves absorbed in the story. Focusing on just one family and having a very few minor characters towards the end could have been risky but the Guinness family are quite special. They have their flaws but provide plenty of entertainment and humour as we journey with them. The ending was just beautiful and very apt and the final stop on the holiday I am so glad Carmel included it. It didn’t at all feel contrived instead the story came full circle in an inspiring way.
The Things I Should Have Said was an extremely enjoyable read with plenty of life lessons for all to learn. Anyone who reads this will take so much from it and you will be left with a smile on your face as you close the final page. Hurt, fear, anger, angst all disappear as through the ingenious of Pops' love, strength and firm family bonds emerge. Carmel Harrington has poured her heart and soul into writing this book. It was joy from start to finish balancing the wit nicely alongside some more serious, sad moments. This should be read in as few sittings as possible as the Guinness family will truly steal a piece of your heart.
Many thanks to Harper Collins Ireland for my copy of The Things I Should Have Told You and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.