Rebuilding: In the Company of Strangers

We’re living in a very fortunate age for friendships. Never has there been so many ways to stay connected with friends – Facebook, Twitter, Skype and FaceTime – all wonderful ways to help us maintain relationships, old and new, near and far.

But, despite all these avenues for conversation, sometimes people still slip away. Best of friends can grow distant, old friends can grow apart and with that, space is left for strangers to become friends.

Company of strangersLiz Byrski’s latest novel In the Company of Strangers (Pan Macmillan) introduces the reader to a cast of strangers, all slightly lost, and unbeknownst to them, ready for friendship…

Ruby and Cat’s friendship was forged on an English dockside sixty years ago when, as terrified children, they were shipped off to Australia. It was a friendship that was supposed to last a lifetime but when news of Cat’s death reaches Ruby in London, it comes after years of estrangement.

Declan too has drifted away from Cat but is forced back to her lavender farm, Benson’s Reach, by the terms of her will. He turns to his troubled friend Alice, who is desperate for a refuge.

Can the magic of Benson’s Reach triumph over the hurt of the past? Or is Cat’s duty-laden legacy simply too much for Ruby and Declan to keep alive?

Central to Byrski’s story are Ruby and Declan, but surrounding them are Alice, Lesley, Todd and Paula. Every character is facing change, struggling with their own demons and in their own ways are ready to make amends with the world and those around them. Ruby is coming to terms with her abusive past, Declan and Alice with their addictions and the harm that they’ve done to others and Lesley, Todd and Paula all feel heartbreakingly disconnected…

“She walks along the little path of irregular shaped, broken slabs back to the kitchen. It’s deadly quiet in the house and the 100 watt bulb in the kitchen makes her feel she’s about to be interrogated by the thought police. She wishes there was someone to call, to talk to. All day, ever day she is surrounded by people who are ringing other people on their posh little phones. Paula has a phone, nice, Samsun, in a shiny pink plastic cover, but nobody ever rings it – well, not for a conversation; work stuff or someone telling her she’s forgotten to make a payment on her credit card, or trying to sell her something, that’s all.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking, given this troubled cast that In the Company of Strangers would be a little bleak. Not so, as Byrski’s novel is about hope, resolution and new-found strength in the company of strangers.

The novel is fairly complex in it’s numerous characters and stories. The author very cleverly gives just enough air-time to each character, exploring their past and present and gradually revealing their hopes for the future. Their stories are moving, and very believable, recognisable.

Interestingly, each character comes from a very different starting point. Their issues are quite unique from each other, but somehow they fit each other perfectly. The author has done well to intertwine these many and various characters into a cohesive unit – each supporting each other to reveal and resolve their troubles.

In the Company of Strangers is beautifully easy to read. Similar to Byrski’s The Last Chance Cafe, the story includes treatment of many serious and important issues – ageing, friendship, addiction and mental illness – but it does so in an accessible way, at times even humorously. It’s a fabulously personable novel.

If you enjoy intelligent storytelling, then I’d recommend In the Company of Strangers for your reading pile this summer.

You’ll find copies of the novel in the TBYL Store now!

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