The Second-Last Woman In England was a book that caught my eye when I was browsing last weekend. I certainly didn't need to purchase another book - but when has 'need' ever really been a factor in my purchasing of books??!
I loved the cover, dark and intriguing - tempting me to delve inside. I then followed my pre-book purchasing ritual and read the description of the book on the back cover:
London, 1953. Mrs Harriet Wallis is found guilty of the murder of her husband, Cecil. It is the year of the Coronation and, as a new Queen ascends the throne, Mrs Wallis will become the second-last woman in England to be hanged.
I was definitely on the way to the counter to make a purchase after noticing the book included a few of my favourite things - London, the period after World War 2 and a strong leading female character. I read the first paragraph of the book just to be sure:
Towards the end of May 1953, Mr Cecil Condor Wallis made the decision to watch the Coronation on a newly purchased television set rather than give in to his children's wishes to join the hundreds of thousands lining the streets less than a mile from his South Kensington home. It was an odd decision for a man who had, on a number of occasions, expressed his loathing for the new medium - and one that probably cost him his life. There were, of course, other factors, aside from the decision to purchase the television set, that contributed to Mr Wallis's death.
I was hooked well and truly by this stage - I had to buy the book and discover for myself what those "other factors" were.
The novel focuses on the upper class Wallis family and their private and business lives in the years following World War 2. There are numerous other associated and related characters introduced throughout the story - one of the most important being their newly employed nanny, Jean Corbett. I have always found books that start with the punchline interesting. We know right from the beginning that Harriet Wallace kills her husband, we know when she does it, where she does it and we know how - the vital part missing in the story is the why. I felt that the author did a great job of teasing out the why and showing us the 'behind the scenes' lives of the Wallis family. At times I felt there were probably a few too many side stories and characters - they were all important or significant in a way but they occasionally made you feel as though you were losing touch with the real , or main, story. Overall though I found this book compelling and addictive - I kept reading until I had it finished and time away from it was torture. Joel has created an authentic world in many respects - so much so that I kept wondering throughout my reading if the book was based on a true story (it isn't but it is interesting to hear Joel speak about her inspiration for the novel).