Caroline Smailes’ novel, The Unwrapping of Theodora Quirke, could be exactly the read you need this festive season, whether you string fairy lights everywhere at the earliest opportunity or curse when you hear the opening bars of a Christmas song. And now’s the perfect time to tell you all about it. Here’s why:
Yesterday (6 December) was the feast day of Saint Nicholas of Myra, a saint who’s celebrated more widely in Northern European countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands, where children receive small gifts, chocolate coins or sweets left overnight in their socks or shoes. This spirit of kindness and generosity is thought to have been the inspiration behind Santa Claus or Father Christmas and the gift-giving traditions of Christmas which Dutch settlers took with them to New Amsterdam in America. St Nicholas later became the patron saint of what is now New York, along with many other cities around the world, including Liverpool, where The Unwrapping of Theodora Quirke is set.
Theodora Quirke has no reason to be merry. It’s bad enough that she has to work on Christmas Eve but now there’s a drunk bloke dressed as Santa and claiming to be St Nick hanging around outside her flat. Given he’s professing to be the giver of Christmas miracles and nearly 2000 years old, she’s wary.
Things get even more weird when St Nick insists he’s there to save Theo. And with the next St Nicholas Day somehow fast approaching, he’s even got a plan that’ll change her life forever.
It all seems pretty straightforward, apart from one awkward fact: Theodora Quirke doesn’t actually need saving.
Caroline Smailes is not only the undisputed Queen of Cakes and Christmas in my social media feed but she’s also an inventive and playful writer, so I was keen to discover her unique take on THE most wonderful time of the year. She doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. The Unwrapping of Theodora Quirke may look like a Christmas book and in so many ways it is one, running as it does from one Christmas Eve to another, but you’ll find no jolly Santa here. It features St Nicholas of Myra instead, incumbent guardian of the happiest Realm (Christmas World) but also a bit grumpy, tired and weary of being constantly overshadowed by his better-known, more commercial counterpart. I love him already.
The Unwrapping of Theodora Quirke centres around nineteen-year-old Theo (as she prefers to be known), who’s been grieving her boyfriend’s death for the past year. When we meet her, she’s about to leave for work on Christmas Eve. But there’s a fat bloke in a Santa suit, convinced he’s actually St Nick, blocking her way. Frustrated that she’ll be late and suspicious of his real intentions, she launches into a sweary rant. It’s an inauspicious start for this unlikely pairing and, while things between them are fractious and uncomfortable for a while – something which isn’t helped by St Nick’s propensity to wear boxers and often little else – Theo certainly isn’t scared or cowed by him. She challenges him throughout, although I suspect there are as many times where he’s trying to get a rise out of her and (not so) secretly revels in grossing her out, as that’s his way of helping her to see the truth of her situation or better understand herself.
St Nick believes that he’s been sent to save Theo, which paves the way for The Unwrapping of Theodora Quirke to pay homage to A Christmas Carol and for St Nick to take a fun swipe at, as he sees him, its ungrateful author, Charles Dickens. These difficult scenes from Theo’s past are delicately handled by Caroline Smailes and beautifully balanced out with some irreverent humour in between. It changes Theo’s perspective on her life and helps us to understand why she’s as abrasive as she first appears, while also allowing the relationship between St Nick and Theo to develop. They both start opening up to each other, even when in St Nick’s case he almost lets certain things slip that he perhaps shouldn’t have. (Thankfully, though, it’s never the aforementioned boxers which he lets slide.)
Spliced in between Theo and St Nick’s travels through time and the realm of Christmas World is Dottie Smith’s account of her encounter with St Nick and the online maelstrom which ensues. These sections allow Caroline Smailes to have some real fun and let rip at the worst excesses of people, companies, the media, social networks and, yes, even Christmas itself. And, while I felt for Dottie and the way in which her good intentions, and a little thing we humans sometimes cling to called hope or a Christmas miracle, were manipulated and rapidly became something grotesque and out of control, I confess I snort-laughed as it all plays out because Caroline Smailes writes it so damn well.
It’s wonderful to see how Theo and St Nick’s relationship changes as the story progresses. Theo might not need saving exactly but St Nick helps her in his own unorthodox way. In return, once she realises exactly what’s at stake here, Theo has no hesitation in trying to prevent the worst from happening. I liked that their love interests weren’t each other but that this was an unlikely friendship instead where the hero was no alpha male but unconventional, and the apparent damsel-in-distress was more than capable of doing some rescuing of her own. And while I may have made it sound as if good things get well and truly trampled on, this is a Caroline Smailes’ novel, which means that there are chinks of love and light and rafts of hope and humour to cling to, such as a cheeky, knowing nod to Caroline’s novel Like Bees to Honey.
Caroline Smailes combines her love for Liverpool with her love of Christmas into an absolute belter of a book. She takes a weary St Nick, a grieving young woman, a green plastic dinosaur, a Facebook fan group and rogue elements looking to muscle in on Christmas miracles, mixes them all together with lashings of swearing, irreverent humour, a fair few farts and dollops of warmth and affection, hope and joy, all while still being firmly rooted in reality and tugging at our heartstrings until they threaten to snap. And I abso-bloody-lutely loved every second of it.
We accompany Theo and St Nick into the Christmas World of the book on what is both a bittersweet festive ride and one glorious and exuberant adventure. If you’ve never read a Christmas story in your life because they’re not your thing, I think even you might enjoy this one. If you love Christmas stories and are looking for a new one, something fresh and different that only could have come out of this particular author’s imagination, here it is. The Unwrapping of Theodora Quirke. Caroline Smailes’ very own slice of festive magic. A Merry St. Nickmas to us all!
I have a signed copy of The Unwrapping of Theodora Quirke to give away. Leave a comment below and the squirrels will pick the winner on Friday.
The Unwrapping of Theodora Quirke by Caroline Smailes is published by Red Door Press and is out as an ebook and in paperback. You can buy it signed or unsigned direct from Red Door Press or find it at Amazon (affiliate link) or Bookshop.org (affiliate link) instead. For more on Caroline Smailes and her books, check our her Author Website, on Instagram or on Twitter.
My thanks to the author and her publisher for originally sending me a review copy. I’ve since bought a signed copy.