Once Upon a Time in England

Helen Walsh's novel about an interracial couple struggling with the racist small-town England of the 1970s and ’80s courses with life but leaves us desensitized in the end.

The shared life of Robbie Fitzgerald and his young Malay wife, Susheela, is full of promise when Helen Walsh’s novel opens. But in classic naturalist style, one night resets the course of their lives for the worse, and there is little they can do to staunch the tide of their misfortune. In small-town England in the early 1970s, their interracial relationship is a welcome incitement to violence for a gang of local skinheads who break in and rape pregnant Susheela while aspiring singer Robbie is out auditioning for a major talent scout. Susheela never tells Robbie the full truth, and the event and its surrounding deceptions drive a wedge between the two, poisoning their future and their young family. The novel courses with life, and the characters are rendered in visceral totality—there isn’t a putrid smell, quickening of heart, or tingle in the loins that isn’t laid bare. Yet this fullness of characterization makes Walsh’s ultimate conceit all the more frustrating, for though the Fitzgeralds try mightily to improve their situation, they have been doomed from the start by their author. As the title indicates, the carefully drawn family is not the center of the book but a tool to illustrate a particular moment in English history, and Walsh’s eagerness to condemn the racist small-town England of the 1970s and ’80s forces her to condemn her characters as well. They all suffer acutely, and though we pity them, Walsh’s presence as the doomed hand of fate looms too large, automatically and artificially clamping down on any glimmer of hope, sapping the narrative of its realism so that one is left desensitized, waiting for the other shoe to drop.