Harriet Cummings’ debut novel We All Begin As Strangers is inspired by real events that took place in her home town the year she was born. In providing her own take on the mysterious intruder ‘The Fox’, she weaves a contemporary tale of the loneliness, suspicion, gossip and misunderstandings rife even in the smallest community.
It’s 1984, and summer is scorching the ordinary English village of Heathcote. What’s more, a mysterious figure is slipping into homes through back doors and open windows. Dubbed ‘The Fox’, he knows everything about everyone – leaving curious objects in their homes, or taking things from them.
When beloved Anna goes missing, the whole community believes The Fox is responsible. But as the residents scramble to solve the mystery of Anna’s disappearance, little do they know it’s their darkest secrets The Fox is really after…
We All Begin As Strangers is split into four parts, each one told by a different Heathcote resident, starting with Deloris, the only female narrator, followed by Jim and Brian, and ending with Stan. This works well as long as you don’t get too attached to one narrator and their story, and is a boon if you don’t find another so easy. The change in narrator helps to give a real sense of movement around the streets and houses affected while also switching up the perspective. You get that character’s internalised thoughts together with how they behave towards the other residents, and how they’re viewed by the other resident-narrators. This helps shift your own view of Heathcote and its inhabitants as you get to know them better.
We’re not seeing these people at their best: they’re in crisis, responding to the unsettling threat of a home intrusion and the shocking disappearance of Anna which suggests the Fox is altogether a more sinister and dangerous creature. But often when people are under stress is precisely when it’s most revealing. Some people will find themselves or discover strengths they didn’t know they had while others will succumb to fear and allow their inner sheep mentality to take over. In We All Begin As Strangers, there are those helpers we should either always be or look for when something bad happens. But there are also suspicions no longer whispered but openly voiced and once chattering gossip takes the more threatening form of a braying mob looking for a scapegoat when the Fox proves elusive. It’s a fascinating look at how we behave towards others when under pressure or we feel threatened and seems a timely novel in that respect.
Harriet Cummings moves you around Heathcote so well, it feels familiar. I’ve come to know its lanes and surrounding fields and woodlands, as well as the layout of some of the houses and gardens. And into that small world, she’s put some interesting and different people and made me care about what happens to them. I loved getting a glimpse into their lives, hearing their concerns, learning their secrets, seeing the objects in their lives which meant something to them, and why. It made me realise again how individual we all are, and yet the same.
We All Begin As Strangers is a very moving story about how we can be part of a community but still feel apart from it, and lonely. It shows how fragile community can be and how quickly and easily fear unravels it once disturbing events happen. It highlights the striking difference between showing a genuine interest in people as opposed to one in their gossip value. There is a lightness of touch here which alleviates some of the tension but while Harriet Cummings gives some Heathcote residents a happier resolution than it looked as if they were heading towards, her story rightly retains its dark edge and its sadly fitting ending. And yet I’ll remember this beautiful book more for the small acts of kindness scattered throughout.
We All Begin As Strangers by Harriet Cummings is published by Orion and is available as an audiobook and ebook and in hardback. You can buy it from Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop), Waterstones and Wordery.
My thanks to Harriet for sending me a review copy of her novel and to the publisher for including me on the blog tour. The #BeginAsStrangers Blog Tour continues until Friday and you can check out all the participating blogs below: