Source: Review copy
Publication: 22 July 2021 from Quercus
My thanks to the publisher for an advance copy for review
STELLA and CONNIE are strangers, brought together by two traumatic events – cruel twists of fate that happen thousands of miles apart.
Stella lives with her mother, a smothering narcissist. When she succumbs to dementia, the pressures on Stella’s world intensify, culminating in tragedy. As Stella recovers from a near fatal accident, she feels compelled to share her trauma but she finds talking difficult. In her head she confides in Connie because there’s no human being in the world that she feels closer to.
Connie is an expat living in Dubai with her partner, Mark, and their two children. On the face of it she wants for nothing and yet … something about life in this glittering city does not sit well with her. Used to working full time in a career she loves back in England, she struggles to find meaning in the expat life of play-dates and pedicures.
Two women set on a collision course. When they finally link up, it will not be in a way that you, or I, or anyone would ever have expected.
I really enjoyed Sonia Velton’s Blackberry and Wild Rose so was intrigued to see what Sonia Velton would write next. The Image of Her is a different book altogether, contemporary rather than historical, but the storytelling is just as compelling.
The Image of Her is about two women; Stella and Connie. Two women, half a world away from each other with little in common or so you might think. Stella is our first person narrator. A teaching assistant who once had dreams of becoming more, but who, instead, ended up living with her bitter and controlling mother; a mother who has spent years taking out her frustrations on her only daughter, belittling her dreams and suffocating her spirit.
Connie on the other hand, is a happily married mother of two. She has recently agreed to park her successful career in order to facilitate her husband Mark’s career by moving to Dubai, where the opportunities for a better lifestyle are calling out. Connie should be content, but the life of an ex-pat isn’t for everyone and she feels a bit rudderless without a career and is less than happy about the course of her relationship with Mark which has felt less and less like a partnership since they relocated.
Stella’s story comes out slowly, in tantalising drips. In a funny way, hers is a story that I empathise with. She doesn’t go out. Her only relationship comes with the delivery man who brings her parcels and comes back days later to return them. As someone whose most intimate (i.e. face to face) and enduring relationship during lockdown was with my postman, I know how much she must have looked forward to that knock on her door.
Not that Stella looks him in the eye. She’s clearly had some medical procedure from which she is recovering, judging by the drugs she has to take, and she slides her parcels in through a gap in the door.
Stella is spending her time thinking about her past and reliving some of her relationship with her mother. As she does so, she is also looking at Connie’s life, searching her out on social media; seeing what she can piece together from her photographs and posts. The contrast between their lives could not be more different, but each woman feels herself caught in a prison from which escape seem increasingly impossible.
Both these women are beautifully realised by Sonia Velton. Both have stories that are compelling and the way she allows her characters to speak creates a tense and fractious feeling in the reader, sometimes so much that I held my breath waiting for the tension to appease.
In Connie’s story, Velton does not gloss over the harsh realities of living in Dubai and the compromises Connie has to make in all aspects of her life in order to live there. As with a recent read, Christy Lefteri’s Songbirds, the problems of economic migrants feature heavily.
But what is at the heart of this gripping and engaging novel are Velton’s wholly engrossing portraits of these two women whose sense of self has been eroded so far as to make them feel invisible. And what Velton achieves by framing her story in this way – by making the lives of these two women intersect in the most unusual way – is to highlight the importance of knowing your own worth, of finding a way to project your own image to the rest of society and of being able to hold your head up when all seems lost.
Verdict: The Image of Her is a taut, beautifully told and mesmerising story that touches on many relevant issues surrounding care, mental health and well-being. More than that though, it is a compelling portrait of two women whose stories are linked in the most unusual of ways. Tense, transfixing, thought-provoking, this is a book that will stay with me.
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Sonia Velton grew up between the Bahamas and the UK. After graduating from university with a first class law degree, she qualified as a solicitor at an international law firm, later going on to specialise in discrimination law. Sonia relocated to the Middle East in 2006. Eight years and three children later she returned to the UK and now lives in Kent. Blackberry and Wild Rose, inspired by real characters and historical events, was short-listed for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize as a work in progress, was longlisted for the Mslexia novel competition, and is Sonia’s first novel.