Odeline Milk is the product of an accountant mother and a clown father – a two-week stand that took place when Cirque Maroc arrived in Arundel to entertain the locals. Odeline’s mother has died recently and, with the money from the sale of the house they shared in Arundel, Odeline has bought a houseboat – Chaplin and Company – moored at Little Venice in London.
[Odeline] makes for an unusual figure. From a short distance away she looks like an overgrown boy dressed in his father’s clothes. Not that many fathers these days wear the baggy pinstripe suits of a 1920s banker – or leather brogues, which in this case are several sizes too big, even for Odeline’s size 9s. She has the height for the suit but not the breadth and so the shoulder pads slip down, making the sleeves longer than they should be. The trousers are bulky under the jacket but held up by a pair of bright-red leather-buttonholed braces, which are probably Odeline’s favourite accessory. More preferred, even, than her bowler hat, which she is not wearing as she walks along the canal. It is wrapped in tissue paper inside her prop box. Her hair is absolutely black and forms a bowl round the back and sides of her head. A crudely short fringe sticks out slightly at the top of her forehead. It looks like she has cut it herself, and she has.
Odeline has come to London to make her fortune. She is a mime artist (her hero is Marcel Marceau), sick of playing children’s parties and being misunderstood. She hopes that in London she will find an audience who appreciate her talent.
She also hopes that she will find her father. She has written to him via the circus and her dream is that he will invite her to see him and ask her to join the company.
But of course, life’s never that simple.
Firstly, Odeline’s a little bit, well, odd. The kids at school called her ‘Odd-bod’ because:
[in] Provincial England, genteel England[,] nobody needed an unmarried mother in their town, or a dark-skinned girl in their child’s classroom…The Milks received no invitations. They were not acknowledged on the High Street, in the post office, or in the queue at the bank. They kept the shutters of their big red-brick house closed, to prevent townsfolk prying. They had no friends, but they did not want any.
Of course this means that Odeline’s social skills are somewhat underdeveloped and her outlook on life can be naïve and simplistic.
Secondly, Odeline’s life is going to be further complicated by the cast of characters who also live in Little Venice: John Kettle, the warden; Vera, the Eastern European woman who runs the barge café, and Ridley, the owner of the barge moored next door.
Amongst all this we also hear the story of the barge – how and why it was built; how it ended up in London – and the people who are part of its story.
I enjoyed the stories that Fellowes tells us, that of the barge’s conception and history and Vera’s history in particular. I also thought the tale of the barge’s past life and the way it connected with its present situation was rather neatly and quite amusingly done. However, it felt as though there were too many stories for a novel of this length. This meant that there wasn’t enough room to explore these interesting characters in a way that left me satisfied. It also meant that Odeline’s own journey felt a little truncated and perhaps not as convincing as it should have been.
However, this is a debut that shows a lot of promise – it is well written and I definitely wanted more. I look forward to reading Fellowes’ next offering.
Thanks to Jonathan Cape for the review copy.