Source: Review copy
Publication: 10 April 2021 in ebook and 10 June 2021 in paperback from Orenda Books
My thanks to Orenda Books for an early copy for review.
Mum-to-be Rachel did everything right, but it all went wrong. Her son, Luke, was stillborn and she finds herself on maternity leave without a baby, trying to make sense of her loss.
When a misguided well-wisher tells her that ‘everything happens for a reason’, she becomes obsessed with finding that reason, driven by grief and convinced that she is somehow to blame. She remembers that on the day she discovered her pregnancy, she’d stopped a man from jumping in front of a train, and she’s now certain that saving his life cost her the life of her son.
Desperate to find him, she enlists an unlikely ally in Lola, an Underground worker, and Lola’s seven-year-old daughter, Josephine, and eventually tracks him down, with completely unexpected results…
Both a heart-wrenchingly poignant portrait of grief and a gloriously uplifting and disarmingly funny story of a young woman’s determination, Everything Happens for a Reason is a bittersweet, life- affirming read and, quite simply, unforgettable.
On the face of it, this isn’t the kind of book I’d normally pick up. It’s not crime, it’s about something intensely personal, dealing with a mother’s grief after the death of her stillborn baby boy. But the fact that it comes from Orenda makes it interesting and so I picked it up. I find that in a Covid world, my emotion is much closer to the surface than it used to be and I wasn’t sure that I was going to welcome that intrusion into my life.
What I found was a bit of a revelation. Katie Allen’s book is touching and quirky. It is funny and uplifting and even as she makes you laugh and you find yourself enjoying the madness of the characters her protagonist, bereaved mother Rachel, meets on her journey, Allen will deliver a sudden sucker punch that is a huge moment of grief that entirely takes the wind out of your sails.
Written in the form of a series of emails to her stillborn son, Luke, Rachel tells Luke of her days, while charting the progress he should have been making in his development. It should be maudlin, but it most certainly isn’t. There were times when I gasped at the sheer crassness of people’s responses, especially from Rachel’s family, to Rachel’s and her husband, Ed’s loss. From the titular ‘everything happens for a reason’ to unbelievable suggestions that its time she got over it, the difficulty people have in knowing what to say is very well portrayed.
So too is the impact on Rachel’s marriage. Not through direct exploration, but by the way we see how Rachel and Ed react differently to the decisions they have to make, including just the most awful discussion, if you can call it that, over whether or not to have a funeral. Honestly I think it’s one of the best explorations of how men and women think differently that I have seen in a book.
Katie Allen writes of grief with a light touch and Rachel’s need to find the reason that her son lost his life takes us on a journey that introduces us to some colourful characters as Rachel throws herself wholeheartedly into chasing down that reason (he’s called Ben) and then making sure that Ben lives a meaningful life. Into Rachel’s life comes Lola, the London Underground employee who helps Rachel find Ben, and Lola’s daughter, Josephine, who charms and enchants.
Allen writes with a dry humour mixed with wit and acute observation. And then sometimes she will put in a line that is so honest it takes your breath away as you contemplate the scale of grief she is dealing with. Sometimes it’s just a small thing, but it resonates like someone striking a gong in a room full of silence, because a moment earlier you were laughing with Rachel and now you’ve stopped in your tracks, remembering.
Everything Happens for a Reason is heart-breaking and emotional. It is laugh out loud funny and has wonderful moments where the reader gets lost thinking about hot men and sausage dogs as Rachel tries to transform Ben into living a life that is good enough to compensate for her baby dying. It’s mad, of course, but chasing down that idea at least keeps her mind focussed on something other than interminable grief.
Verdict: I’m not sure I’m doing a great job of explaining why this book works so well or is so warm and uplifting. I think it is that mixture of honesty, of humour, of Katie Allen’s ability to write characters that have depth and charm and sometimes brusqueness, coupled with scenes that linger in the memory because they are so powerful. Katie Allen has written a portrait of a woman in the midst of profound grief that is raw, truthful and immensely powerful but which makes you laugh even as you cry and which ultimately leaves you with hope. I really liked Rachel and I loved this book.
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Katie Allen used to be a journalist and columnist at the Guardian and Observer, and started her career as a Reuters correspondent in Berlin and London. She grew up in Warwickshire and now lives in South London with her husband, children, dog, cat and stick insects. Everything Happens for a Reason is her first novel.