Welcome to a new feature called Helena’s Best Reads. Once per month, I’m going to introduce you to a book that I particularly loved. It could be a novel, a non-fiction book, or even a poetry collection that I just could not put down.
This month, my best read is The Other Us by Fiona Harper.
There’s a time-travelling housewife …
I don’t usually read fantasy – I only got into Harry Potter because my children were of that age. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a whole episode of Doctor Who, nor am I a fan of Game of Thrones. Even reading the Finnish national epic, Kaleva, which is full of magical characters and events, I sometimes hear myself mutter, ‘Yeah, right!’ (In Finnish obviously). It isn’t that I lack imagination, oh no.
I make up stories that are ‘real’
Take yesterday. The Englishman and I’d been in town to meet up with friends. Suddenly on our way home, when changing trains on the tube, my husband pulled me aside.
‘What,’ I said, ‘is this some kind of a new short-cut to the platform?’
In the maze that is the London underground tunnelling system, he was leading me down an escalator with a ‘No Entry’ sign above it. The Englishman prides himself in knowing which routes to take to minimise the travelling time, something we joke about. I, on the other hand, prefer not to change trains even if it means I spend a few more minutes on the journey.
‘No,’ he said, looking quite serious, so I followed him without complaint (which is rare). While we were making our way back to the platform and the tube line we’d just come from, he explained that a man who’d been staring at him across the aisle on the tube carriage we’d just left, had followed us onto the first escalator and stopped to stand uncomfortably close behind him on the way up. We took different (longer) route home, while the Englishman, now feeling a bit embarrassed told me ‘It was probably nothing.’
I had spotted the man staring at my husband on the train but hadn’t seen him follow us out into the tunnel. But I understood, the guy had unnerved me too with his staring. In these times of high terror threat level in London, you’ve got to be careful. We considered whether we should contact the transport police but felt we really had nothing to report. ‘A man looked at me oddly then got off the train at the same station and stood too close to me on the escalator,’ sounds a bit ridiculous, we agreed.
But my head was now full of questions. What if, on our return home we found there’d been a knife attack on the tube line we’d decided not to take? What if the man was a terrorist who’d just been sizing up who to attack? In that case, why hadn’t he done anything there and then? Why wait and follow us out of the train? If he wasn’t a terrorist (which was unlikely!) what had been the man’s problem? Did the Englishman remind him of someone? Was it a case of mistaken identity? Or was he just one of those people who stare at others while working something out in his head? The incident became a story in my head, I had a beginning of a scene, then a loose plot for a spy thriller – or even a romance. The guy with the stare could be connected to the woman somehow and was acting oddly in a jealous rage.
But even if I make these stories up in my head, the scenarios are always rooted in reality, in something that I believe could happen, however unlikely. My feet are firmly planted on the ground, without me suddenly falling through it into another world. In my stories, I delve into the reality of life, in all its fabulousness. To me the world we live in is crazy enough; I don’t need to create ‘other worlds’ or time-travelling characters, or fantastical creatures.
The Other Us is different
But back to the book. In spite of my disinterest in the fantasy genre, I absolutely loved The Other Us, especially once I saw that the main protagonist, Maggie (or Meg in one of her time zones) struggled with the same concerns real people in the real world do. Don’t get me wrong, I do understand that most of fantasy (if not all) deals with real issues, and addresses real wrongs in the real world – or are about the human condition. But in fantasy, the fight is often against some great threat to the survival of the human race, or something similarly big and dangerous.
Not so in The Other Us. Maggie, the heroine, is searching for the key to a perfect loving relationship. Of course, this is a Big Thing in life and is treated as such in the book, but because of the domestic – almost mundane – setting, I could identify with the protagonist’s concerns, even if I don’t believe time-travel can be real.
Would you be able to change your life if you had a second chance?
In The Other Us Maggie gets just such a chance. She is in an unhappy marriage and when her grown-up daughter flyes the coop, she starts to fantasize about an old boyfriend. Her confidante, a controlling best friend, Becca, wants to attend a university reunion, but Maggie is afraid what meeting her old flame might do to her. When Maggie is magically transported to her student days she gets an opportunity to make different choices in life. But will she choose wisely? While she is flung back and forth in time, seesawing her way through a life in two different scenarios, without any control over her time-travel, can Maggie influence her own happiness as well as improve the lives of the people close to her? And who does that happiness really depend on?
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and would recommend it to even those of you, like me, who are not readers of fantasy. This book is a romance, really, just told slightly differently in several time zones.
The Other Us by Fiona Harper
Published by HQ, 2017
Kindle £2.99/Paperback £5.99
Over to you
What was the best book you read recently? Comment below and get the conversation going!