Brown Owl’s Guide to Life

Sorry for neglecting the blog lately – we had a week away in France, but getting home proved slightly more eventful than anticipated. During my holiday I read two books that I particularly want to write about, but they are currently rather a long way away with a certain amount of the rest of our luggage. I’m also not sure that I have the head space to write serious reviews of serious books just now.

So, in the meantime, I’ve been reading Brown Owl’s Guide to Life by Kate Harrison (Orion, 2006), which I picked up ages ago in a charity shop after seeing it reviewed on Big Book Little Book and had been saving to take on holiday.

Brown Owl's Guide to Life by Kate Harrison (Orion, 2006)

According to the blurb:

Shy, sweet-natured Lucy Collins is used to being pushed around. For the first eighteen years of her life, her widowed mother Judith ruled the roost. Now Lucy’s husband, her seven-year-old daughter and even Buster the cat boss her about. But her mother’s premature death leaves Lucy an orphan at the age of thirty-five. She’s devastated…but she’s also free. After a lifetime of being a disappointment to everyone, is it finally time Lucy grew up? As she clears out her mother’s rambling house, Lucy discovers a trunk full of memories…her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were all Brown Owls: capable, no-nonsense matriarchs who were the leading lights of the Girl Guide movement. They spent their spare time preparing the next generation for their roles as wives and mothers with a mixture of campfire songs, sew-on badges and reef knots. But could the old values and frontier spirit now hold the key to help Lucy make the changes she needs in her life?

As well as Lucy, it follows the stories of the other members of the Pixies both in the present day and the momentous summer of 1979, when the arrival of a new family shook up their small town and changed many lives forever. Lucy is questioning her marriage – conventional but dull – and longing to break away and follow her dreams. It is her mother’s death and her own consequent search for the truth about her father, who died when she was young and was never mentioned by her mother, that enables her to do this. Each of the other women in the story has some kind of crisis to deal with in terms of relationships, finances, faith and so on, and as they come together again, rather unwillingly at first, their rekindled friendships are able to help them get back on track.

Somewhat disconcertingly, as well as flicking between the present day and the past, the narrative voice also switches from Lucy’s story in the first person, present tense, to those of the other characters in the third person, past tense. This gave the book an unnecessarily disjointed nature and took a while to get used to. I also found the endings rather pat, yet none of them went precisely the way I thought they would 100 pages or so from the end, which is something. There is also just about enough ambiguity at the end to prevent it from feeling unbearably glib.

All in all, it was a light-hearted holiday read that just about managed to get below the surface and look at some more serious issues. It didn’t set the world alight and I suspect it’ll soon find its way back to the charity shop, but the plot was engaging enough to keep me hooked. And, like Helen from BBLB, I was also once a Brownie so that nostalgic aspect had a certain appeal – if you weren’t, I suspect this isn’t the book for you! So, despite the irritations mentioned above and some slightly sloppy writing, or possibly proofreading, I found the story just the job for clearing my head from heavier reading and getting through a few stressful days. Sometimes that’s the only thing that counts.

About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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