Lonely people don’t want to be alone. For them, solitude has none of the glamour that those of us with choice perceive. People like Jean, the protagonist and part-narrator of Half Broken Things, who never, for a combination of reasons, married, or had kids, find themselves watching from the outside in. Older now, without parents living, they feel loneliness chipping away, a prodding reminder of what they missed out on. Mostly the days pass with dull routine, and the way it is depicted in Joss’ novel reminds me of a passage in Jane Eyre that always got to me:
Take one day; share it into sections; to each section apportion its task: leave no stray unemployed quarters of an hour, ten minutes, five minutes–include all; do each piece of business in its turn with method, with rigid regularity. The day will close almost before you are aware it has begun
And that’s just it, for lonely people like Jean. The days are made up of pieces, just as the weeks are made up of days. She makes a living as a housesitter, having nothing permanent of her own—instead, an ever-shifting parade of houses to occupy until the next one. This seems to content her. But then come reminders—like Christmas, that preserve of the loved. Jean spends her Christmases at a boarding-house, surrounded by other older men and women, most of them kinless. Jean, despite being in a situation that is not unique, cannot admit reality. She tells them, year after year of a family. A niece, at first, who sends her gifts. A new item of clothing which Jean is able to flaunt at the boarding-house. But the phantom niece is always mysteriously absent, and never has Jean over for Christmas. The natural conclusion in Jean’s mind is that her niece must have married, and moved away, as far away as Australia. These are only hints at the depths of Jean’s imagination, and her ability to not only delude those around her, but herself.
Imagine, then, that suddenly—when you’re firmly into your autumn years, retirement approaching; when you’ve given up all hope of anything more—opportunity affords itself. A life, not your own, a package-holiday of a life. A home, not yours. Different, this time. A broken teapot and a handful of loose keys. Keys which fit doors that were forbidden you. Furniture, not yours. Clothes, fancy ones, in a wardrobe, not yours. A family, not yours. But maybe, temporarily, yours—if you pretend. If you piece together yourself, gather together a reality of sorts. Find in Walden Manor, your last house, in vulnerable Steph and troubled Michael, and the baby, something you had not dared dream of before. A place, a worth. You realise that, collectively, you are only half broken things.
This book to me has that pull within it that only a handful of my favourite books do. If I return to it, even if only to track down my favourite scenes, I am transported back to when I first read it, about five years ago. It has atmosphere. I would call it gothic, but cleverly it couples its gothic elements with realism. This is modern Britain: the deadening dullness of middle-class suburbia; an urban Britain people get lost in, council estates and shopping centres. These are where we find the family: unhappy—in one case abused—disillusioned people. They emerge from their situations and together find in Waldon Manor, not only a place of fantasy, but of sanctuary. Equally as I read Half Broken Things for the first time, I was able to leave behind my own life and join them in their constructed world. It had that same escapism as reading, again,Jane Eyre, but it was more potent to me because the characters had come from backgrounds that were real to me.
As well as a piercingly accurate depiction of loneliness, of yearning to be loved, and the sweet complacency of finding that love, companionship, and that sense of belonging, Half Broken Thingsis also an incredibly effective thriller. Danger, in the face of cold reality, lurks beneath, an undercurrent. That undercurrent grows stronger, and stronger. Reading, we know, just as Jean knows really, just as Michael and Steph know, that the fantasy cannot last forever. Time and reality are against us. The effect is incredible. Watching Jean react to this—the threat—is fascinating. It’s a truly well-observed psychological study. And the ending, wow the ending.