Sunday, 11 June 2017

Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett

One day. Sixteen songs. The soundtrack of a lifetime...

review by Maryom

Once a famous singer/songwriter, a British rival to Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell, Cass Wheeler has been living a lonely, reclusive life following a personal tragedy and time spent in re-hab. Now she's ready to make a come back. A new album is recorded, a launch party planned, but first Cass wants to spend a day in the studio listening to her old records and picking out the ones that she considers to be her 'greatest hits' - not the ones that sold best but those that are more personal and private, representing key moments in her life. Over the course of the day, listening to her old songs, Cass revisits her fractured childhood, headstrong teenage years, meteoric rise to fame, and the troubles that seemed to follow fast on its heels.

Now, I loved Laura Barnett's debut novel, The Versions of Us, and the minute I heard there was another on the way, I was eager to read it, but at the same time a little cautious as I often am with second novels, plus I thought the theme of ex-rock-star-making-a comeback was maybe a little predictable. How wrong could I have been? I absolutely love Greatest Hits!

For me, this is a story that comes with a huge slice of nostalgia -  Cass is the sort of singer I'd have listened to as a young teen, followed in the music magazines of the day, maybe even dreaming of living a life such as hers - but Greatest Hits isn't just a story of music and fame.

I think without the various time-lines of The Versions of Us, there's more opportunity this time to appreciate the author's writing style, and skill at story-telling. Starting in the present day, Cass's life story unfolds in a series of flashbacks; one thread follows her life from childhood to present day; another the more recent events of the past few months. Moving between the two, like adding the layers and depths to a painting, Barnett builds an intimate portrait of a woman and the events that have shaped her.

From a childhood that feels deprived of love, Cass moves through teenage rebellion, an over-confident belief in her own decision making, and rejection of the people who care most for her, to the heady heights of stardom, with its jealousies and betrayals, till she ends up feeling she may have failed at everything - as daughter, wife, mother, musician. Although there are hints at the tragedy that changed her life, there's still enough mystery shrouding it, and the hope that Cass may find happiness at last, to lure the reader on.

Something that really intrigues me is the way that, not only does each chapter start with the lyrics to one of those 'greatest hits', but Laura Barnett has worked with singer/songwriter Kathryn Williams to have them brought to 'musical' life. An album is to be released shortly after the book's publication but for now you can hear the first song "Common Ground" by following the links on Kathryn Williams web site.

Although the story takes Cass on a journey through loss and grief, the overwhelming mood is upbeat. If you haven't discovered Laura Barnett yet, do read it. It's definitely one for fans of Maggie O'Farrell, but with a musical setting reminiscent of Tiffany Murray's Diamond Star Halo, and deserves to be a huge hit itself!

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Orion (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) 
Genre - adult, 

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