"Half Broken Things"
(Reviewed by Mary Whipple OCT 30, 2005)
"I had nobody. Nobody. The feeling this gave me was unbearable, as if I were made of something weighty but without colour or life, like damp ashes, so worthless I could be swept into a sack and tipped out somewhere and never be missed. So I would have clung to anyone who stopped me feeling like that. I would have stuck to anyone who wanted me, and I was in no position to much mind who they were, or even what it was they wanted me for."
Jean, a sixty-four-year-old spinster, is working her final job as a house-sitter before she retires, tending the lovely, large Walden Manor, not far from Bath. The owners, who will be in Europe from January through August, have locked certain rooms, attested to the inventory, and established rules governing what can and cannot be done on the premises. Knowing this is her last job, Jean decides to flout the rules, living as if she were truly the lady of the manor, opening locked rooms, the wine cellar and freezer, and the family's personal spaces. Within a week, she has invited her "son" Michael to move in, and he has brought with him the pregnant Steph, who is about to give birth. Bonding into a close-knit "family," these social outcasts make themselves at home--for the first time in their lives.
Jean, writing a first person narrative at the end of her stay, instantly creates suspense when she reveals that there are "only eleven more days," and that she "does not plan to offer excuses for what we have done." Through flashbacks, we come to know her family background, learning of her childhood, her psychological and emotional abuse, her dysfunctional relationship with her demanding Mother, and her need for closeness. Michael, her "son," now "working" as a thief, is similarly needy, having survived a similarly horrific childhood. Steph, the third lost soul, is an abused teenager--pregnant, rejected, and homeless.
The characters, though off-beat when taken separately, become absurd when they start acting as a family. Living apart from society's rules, they begin acting to protect themselves and their lifestyle at Walden Manor. Jean speaks for all when she says, "I would do anything, absolutely anything, to keep us all together," and the reader has reason to believe her.
As the characters' self-protective actions become more extreme, the novel changes from suspenseful psychological horror to the blackest of black-humored farce--some of the darkest humor I've read since Molly Keane's Time After Time. Joss has filled the novel with minute descriptions of her odd characters in the novel's early pages, creating chilling suspense while creating reader empathy with the characters. In the second half of the novel, however, the reader realizes that these characters are more than just "odd," as they engage in increasingly outrageous scenes. The pace accelerates, and the author's mordant humor is fully unleashed.
Coincidences, ironies, understatements, and absurdity combine as Joss guides the novel into that twilight zone between genuine suspense and genuine humor, keeping the reader smiling from the tenterhooks. The novel's themes of time, family, home, and the need for love are fully developed--in unique, unexpected, and darkly humorous ways.
- Amazon readers rating: from 24 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Half Broken Things at Random House
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Half Broken Things (2005)
- Puccini's Ghost (2006)
- The Night Following (2008)
- Among the Missing (June 2011)
Sara Selkirk Mysteries:
- Funeral Music (1998; 2005 in US)
- Fearful Symmetry (1999; 2005 in US)
- Fruitful Bodies (2001; 2005 in US)
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- Official website for Morag Joss
- BookReporter interview with Morag Joss
- Chapter excerpt from Funeral Music
- The MysteryReader review Funeral Music
- Chapter excerpt from Fearful Symmetry
- Chapter Excerpt from Fruitful Bodies
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About the Author:
Morag Joss grew up on the west coast of Scotland and completed a degree in English at St. Andrew's and then studied singing at Guildhall School of Music in London. Since then, she has worked in museums, galleries and higher education as a manager and lecturer.
She began writing in 1996, when her first short story won an award in a national competition. She then wrote three Sara Selkirk novels, set in Bath, and with her fourth novel, Half Broken Things, she won the 2003 CWA Silver Dagger Award. She now writes full-time.
Morag Joss and her husband and daughter live in the country outside the city of Bath and in London.