Review copy from the author
I was delighted to be sent a review copy of this novel by an author whose previous novels I have enjoyed and who will be speaking later this week at an event I have been helping to organise. Katharine D’Souza is a Birmingham novelist, and while her books are set in a city which is very recognisable to anyone who lives here, there is more than that to recommend them. Really it is irrelevant whether you know the city or not – but as someone who does, it adds an extra dimension to be able to picture – for instance – Bournville village or the canal side bars in the city centre. I always enjoy novels set in Birmingham, but the devil is in the detail – it is always quickly evident how well the writer knows the place – and as Katharine D’ Souza lives in Birmingham herself, I know she always gets those details spot on.
The third novel by Katharine D’Souza No Place explores the idea of what it means to belong. Some people identify very clearly with a particular country or city – other people struggle to find within themselves that sense of belonging. It is the two sides of this age old story that is at the heart of the this hugely readable novel.
Tanya Gill is a radiographer who works in a large Birmingham hospital, she spends her evenings watching the planes on a flight radar website – dreaming of leaving Birmingham, imagining the people on those planes overhead. Tanya’s sister Geena has ambitions as a jewellery designer, for now she is working in a small jewellers and watch repair shop in Bournville Village. Bournville is the village created by the Cadbury family for the chocolate factory workers – it is a particularly idyllic Birmingham, suburb.
“Royal wedding, Team GB, Diamond jubilee: any excuse to fly the bunting. Not just bunting either. Mugs. Cushion covers. Bath mats and hand towel set. Dadda did things properly. The ultimate patriot, more British than fish and chips.
Tamya didn’t get it. Britain might be home, but there was a world out there and staying put meant missing out.”
Tanya is the elder of the two sisters born to Indian immigrants. Their father, after thirty years in Birmingham, is as English as fish and chips, his fierce patriotism, extending to union jack door mats and royal wedding memorabilia. Their mother died ten years earlier, since when Tanya has been doing her best to take care of everyone. Tanya and Geena grew up with little knowledge of their Indian heritage, the family have never practised the Sikh religion, and the girls never thought to ask many questions about their Indian roots.
Geena has been – until recently – at the centre of a large group of friends, out most evenings, socialising in town. Tanya, usually stayed at home in the evenings, boyfriends haven’t featured much lately. However, Geena has incurred the wrath of her friends, and finds herself shunned, staying home more and more. With fewer distractions Geena begins to think more seriously about her future ambitions. Tanya is used to treating her sister like the kid she was when their mother died, and isn’t quite prepared for her younger more frivolous sister to start stepping up to the plate.
When their Dadda – Jagtar – is subjected to an upsetting, racist incident on a bus, it seems to trigger something that Tanya and Geena are unable to understand. Suddenly he avoids going out, becomes more protective and begins to talk about moving, Tanya spots he’s been doing property searches for Wiltshire.
“Tanya had always been happy to stay with him, she had promised her mum she’d do as much, but to follow Dadda into a rural seclusion would be going too far. Her own dreams had no borders. If she left Birmingham it would be to travel beyond British shores.”
The sisters can’t understand how a relatively minor, though unpleasant incident could spark such an extreme reaction. Deb, a colleague of Tanya’s from the hospital who works with injured service personnel may be able to help get to the bottom of what is really going on. Perhaps there is something in his past that they are unaware of? – something that has been unearthed by his recent upset.
As the novel opens Tanya meets Will from Chicago– in Birmingham working for the American company who now own Cadbury – he represents the different world she longs to explore. Even the way he pronounces her name seems exotic. However, nothing is straightforward and soon Will is required to fly back to Chicago, and Tanya is worried about her father. Will is keen that she visit him in Chicago to see if their relationship could be the real thing. How can she do that now? Always at the back of her mind is the idea of travelling far from Birmingham, of finding out where all those planes on the radar website go. Passionate about her job, Tanya also has ambitions of furthering her career, undertaking more training, new challenges. Tanya must find out who it is she wants to be, and what it is that makes a place home.
No Place was a lovely comforting read, full of dear familiar places. The Gill family represent many of the challenges that affect families like them in the twenty-first century. Their stories are compelling and the ending – which I won’t spoil – is quite perfect.