“Who is Alice Salmon?
Student. Journalist. Daughter. Lover of late nights, hater of deadlines.
That girl who drowned last year.
Gone doesn’t mean forgotten. Everyone’s life leaves a trace behind. But it’s never the whole story.
‘I will stand up and ask myself who I am. I do that a lot. I’ll look in the mirror. Reassure myself, scare myself, like myself, hate myself. My name is Alice Salmon.’
When Alice Salmon dies, the ripples from her tragic drowning can be felt in the news, on the Internet, and in the hearts of those closest to her.
However, the man who knows her best isn’t family or a friend. His name is Professor Jeremy Cooke, an academic fixated on piecing together Alice’s existence.
Cooke knows that faithfully recreating Alice, through her diaries, text messages and online presence, has become all-consuming.
But he does not know how deep his search will take him into this story of love, loss and obsession where everyone – including himself – has something to hide.”
Just finished reading “What She Left”, the debut novel from writer T.R. Richmond, and I have to say – what a great book!
Richmond is, from what I can gather, a pseudonym for Tim Relf, an editor and columnist for “Farmers Weekly”, where he has worked for the past 20 years, journalist and blogger. He is also the author of two previous novels under his own name some ten years ago.
This particular novel is a work of fiction unlike any I have read before. It isn’t really a novel at all. Except it is. Let me explain…
Richmond / Relf was looking at his Twitter feed back in 2012 when he apparently spotted a tweet from someone thinking about which song they would want to have played at their funeral. It struck the author that this was quite an intimate detail for someone to share and got him thinking about what else someone might learn about that person via social media. From that came the idea for this book.
The story of Alice Salmon, and exactly how she came to be found dead in the river – was it an accident, suicide, murder? – is told not through the usual novel form, whether that might be linear or non-linear narrative. No, this story is told through a collection of tweets, Facebook postings, texts, emails, blog postings, playlists and comments on web forums plus the more traditional (or old-fashioned!) diary entries and letters.
I suspect that this format could, for some readers, be slightly off-putting, and indeed it did take a little getting used to, particularly since the various pieces are not ordered chronologically – essentially putting this in the non-linear narrative camp.
We are gradually introduced to a cast of characters who were in some way close to Alice and may, or may not, have had something to do with her death – or at least have some information about what actually happened.
There is Professor Cooke, who’d come across Alice when she was at university in Southampton. Elizabeth, Alice’s mother, who had known Professor Cooke years previously. Megan Parker, Alice’s best friend. Luke Addison, Alice’s boyfriend. Not to mention various friends and ex-flatmates and an internet troll calling themself A Freeman…
It takes a while for the picture to start to form as Professor Cooke begins to try to pull as much information together as he can about Alice – and in a way we are kind of in his shoes as we read and try to dissect the various items of correspondence etc. and try to figure out what did happen to Alice.
It’s not that easy, however, as none of the characters are overly likeable (that is to say each of them has a bad side that is shown) and Alice isn’t portrayed as being someone remarkable. On top of that you cannot be sure who – if indeed anyone – is being completely honest in their account.
However, that’s why I found this book so engaging I think. The characters may not be fantastic people or anything – but they do feel very real and that in itself makes the book, and the human story within, feel very real too.
Not sure that the author could come up with another novel using this structure, but for my money this one is bang on the money…