Older women are frequently portrayed as either dotty or having great insight and wisdom, at least in more popular fiction. In this novel Mary Holmes is presented at the outset as one of the dotty kind, but she gradually appears as an elderly woman who is full of insight and wisdom. And she has a story to tell.
Should You Ask Me is the 39thin the series on Bookword blog about older women in fiction. This novel was recommended to me by someone on my recent French trip, about which you can read here. You can find a list of all the previous posts in the older women in fiction series with links, together with more recommendations from readers on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series.
Should You Ask Me by Marianne Kavanagh
It is June 1944 in Wareham, a small town in Dorset. Like much of the south west of England the area is full of American troops, part of the build-up to D Day. Mary Holmes, an old woman of 86 presents herself at the police station. She has information about the identity of two bodies that have been discovered in the local quarries. And then she claims that she killed them.
William, the constable detailed to question her and take her statement, is very severely wounded and suffering from PSTD. He has his own story, concerning his love for Stella, a woman evacuee with a young baby. As Miss Holmes tells her story, William relives his past in a series of painful flashbacks.
Over the course of several days William and Annie spend hours together as he tries to prise her story out of her. He goes from doubting her fanciful and long-winded narrative to believing her detailed story concerning a shipwreck, two young men, the young Mary and an elaborate plot to avoid sharing the spoils of the shipwreck with the village. And two murders.
Eventually Mary gets William to relate his own story of lost love and military training that went horribly wrong, and to suggest that he needs treatment. It is partly a novel about guilt and confession.
We first meet Mary as she presents herself to William who is not from Wareham and does not know anything of her.
Underneath the black hat, which had a small silky bow to one side, her hair was a silvery grey. The skin of her face was so criss-crossed with tiny lines it looked like soft paper that had been crumpled and re-crumpled many times. She was wearing a black coat, with a pink scarf tucked in at the neck and cream woollen gloves, buttoned at the wrist. […] Her accent was old Dorset, a hum of long vowels. (5)
The story she has to tell about the two bodies happened 60 years before, and she has mulled over it a great deal. She will not hurry the retelling, which is frustrating for the constable and his kindly sergeant. She attends the police station every day for an hour or two to share a cup of tea with William and to relate a little more of her detailed story.
The tale she has to tell is full of violence and betrayal and guilt.
As she shares her story she notices William’s pain, physical and mental and the care afforded him by Sergeant Mills. Eventually William tells her his own story of love, betrayal and his own close encounter with death. He too lives with guilt and is unable to forgive himself for the explosion that killed a fellow soldier, ruined his leg and probably his future.
Old woman as novelist’s device
This novel is about the slow telling of a double murder-mystery. In many ways Mary Holmes is the device that allows Marianne Kavanagh to tell the story slowly. And to take the reader back to the village as it was before the First World War, back into the late 19thcentury.
But this is not to dismiss this character as a thin one. Her creator is careful to tell us that she had a busy and successful life after the murders, running the forge and then the local garage, including servicing the cars of Lawrence of Arabia.
I have criticised other novels about older women for assuming the only thing of importance that happened in their lives concerned romantic events in their youth. Their older selves have been fashioned and determined by the events of this time. But Mary Holmes is a more rounded character than that.
And Marianne Kavanagh has written a good story.
Should You Ask Meby Marianne Kavanagh, published in 2017 by Hodder and Stoughton. 272pp
Recent posts in this series:
The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour
Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper
The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe
Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon