What did Molly tell her biology teacher that caused her family to split apart?
The power of the word looms over Salway’s determinedly offbeat second novel (after The ABCs of Love, 2004), a mystery story of a kind in which Molly Drayton, an unusual, sometimes furious, overweight young woman with a shaded past settles into a new life working in a stationery shop. But what happened beforehand to turn “the most popular girl at school” into a recluse? Answers must wait while Molly establishes her new living and social arrangements. Her quietly lecherous but harmless boss, Mr. Roberts, pays her to rearrange the shelves while she perches on a ladder telling him suggestive stories; chic Mrs. Roberts and Molly’s hairdresser friend Miranda help improve Molly’s grooming; and in the park, her strange and secretive boyfriend Tim delivers delicious kisses but also mentions hearing voices. Meanwhile, Liz at the library guides Molly’s reading, introducing her to Colette, whose work will inspire new tales for Mr. Roberts. As Molly’s confidence grows, she harms herself less, starts to lose weight and believes that Tim is going to take care of her, something she craves. But Tim isn’t well and neither perhaps is Molly. Eventually, the truth about her past emerges in one of her stories: Her fury at her oppressive father led her to tell exaggerated tales of his abuse to her teacher, who called in social services. Now, in a last, well-intentioned burst, Molly turns pro-active, putting an end to Miranda’s foolish fantasies and finishing off Mr. Roberts (who has a weak heart) with a story of sexual sadism, thereby securing Mrs. Roberts’s and her own financial future. A lightly told, somewhat comic but darkly claustrophobic story of disturbed and disturbing empowerment in an odd neighborhood.
Although competently done, this quirky novel can also seem airless and charmless.