Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Songs of Willow Frost - Jamie Ford

I loved Jamie Ford’s debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and so was very much looking forward to reading his new novel, and I found it another very special story, with a fascinating setting and period, and a very engaging pair of main characters in William Eng and Liu Song, or Willow Frost.  They both have a lot to overcome in their lives, are subject to poverty and prejudices, and suffer many losses.

It’s 1934, in Seattle, when we meet twelve-year-old William at Sacred Heart Orphanage, run by nuns for orphans or children who have been left there temporarily, some parents do return eventually, others do not. William is American, of Chinese descent. He has a couple of good friends there, Charlotte, and Sunny. It is Charlotte, a blind girl, with whom he shares the closest friendship, and they plot together to leave the home one day; after a previous trip to the city when William saw a movie featuring Willow Frost, he believes she is actually his mother, and determines to find her.

The story takes us back to 1921 and introduces us to Liu Song, a young woman whose mother is very ill and weak, and her mother’s unkind second husband, known as Uncle Leo. Liu Song’s own late father, and her mother, were once actors, loving to perform, and she realises she wants to follow in their footsteps. But there are so many barriers, such cruelty, she suffers sadness and pain in her life. We learn of what she has been through, so that when new happiness seems to be possible, when she meets a kind man, she is scared to believe in it: 'She hesitated to hope and dream, unsure if she could take another loss - even a rejection seemed far beyond her capacity to endure.'

For both William and Liu Song, there are highs and lows as they struggle through their lives. Being able to perform brings some happiness to Liu Song but she feels so alone much of the time. There are occasional happy moments at the orphanage, none more exciting and magical for William and the other children than when they are told that a bookmobile is visiting:

'William's excitement grew as the line shortened and smiling, delighted children began wandering off, books in hand, finding places to sit and read. William had been to the public library only once before, on a field trip, and even though he wasn't allowed to check out anything, he never forgot how it felt to wander in and see books on shelves as high as the ceiling. The library is like a candy store where everything is free.'

Songs of Willow Frost offers a moving and vivid portrayal of 1920s and 1930s Seattle, the effects of the Great Depression are to be seen as characters pass through the streets and see those who are destitute. The growing popularity of cinema as entertainment and escape is also brought to life. 

William is a courageous boy, determined to believe his mother wants him back. Willow strives to do the best she can for her son and to protect them both from those who would interfere or separate them. I found myself hoping for a better future for both William and Willow, I admired them and felt they both had an instinct for survival despite the often heavy odds being against them. I believed in both of them, and felt moved by their experiences, wanting them to break through the sad times and troubles, and find happier days ahead. 

As in his debut novel, Jamie Ford uses the dual time-frame narrative again here really well,  I liked having several chapters focussing on William's life first, and then several that took us back to discover what had happened to Liu Song, and then forwards again. The author draws on his own childhood in Seattle's Chinatown to create an authentic and evocative background canvas of the city in which the story takes place. I was engrossed in the author's depiction of the times. There were memorable well-drawn minor characters too, like Mr Butterfield at the sheet-music shop where Willow sings, and Sister Briganti at the orphanage. I was only disappointed at how things were resolved between two of the characters towards the end but I won't say who because it would be a bit of a spoiler.

I loved having the map at the front of the book and referred to it several times to follow where William or Willow were in the city at certain points in the story, it brought it to life even more for me. 

This is an absorbing, atmospheric and well-paced read of family and friendship, love and loss, tradition and culture, pain and hope. Though at times it is joyful, there is much that is so heartbreaking; despite this I very much enjoyed reading it, in particular because of the strong characterisation and the vivid, captivating depiction of the setting and the period. 

Thanks to the publisher for kindly sending me a copy of this novel for an honest review.


  1. I loved this book Lindsay - what an excellent review!

    Anne x

    1. Thanks very much Anne. I'm glad you loved it too. x

  2. You seem to really capture the feel of this book in your review.

    This sounds really good. As to the heartbreak mixed with joy, such stories capture something that is very real about life.

    1. Thanks very much for the lovely comment Brian.

  3. I really enjoyed this one too. I couldn't decide who I loved more - I would read chapters with William and think that he was my favorite, but then I would feel the same way about Willow when I read about her!


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