At the back of the book, J B Mylet explains how he was inspired to write this novel by his mother’s own experiences as a child in an institution very like the one in The Homes. As a young girl she thought all children were brought up in similar set-ups: a cluster of houses in a purpose-built of village with twenty or thirty children per cottage with ‘house parents’ and a cook to feed them all. She didn’t realise that most children grew up with their biological families.
And at first it’s the same for Lesley, sharing a room with five other girls, including her best friend, Jonesy, all about the same age. But now she’s twelve, she knows better. She at least gets regular visits from her grandmother, who though kindly, is unable to care for Lesley, and neither can her mother who visits a few times a year. Lesley is bitter about her mother and finds it difficult to believe her when her mother says she’s hoping to bring her home to live with her one day. Jonesy is there is because the state has considered her mother an unsuitable parent.
There are other rooms in Lesley’s house with more girls of different ages and in charge are the Patersons, a childless couple who do their best. But Mr Paterson is not above taking his belt to the girls, in fact it’s expected. Jonesy gets it more than most. She’s just so lively and unstoppable. And everyone is terrified of the Superintendent, Mr Gordon. Jonesy’s non-stop chatter is a foil to Lesley’s quieter intelligence. Meanwhile Lesley escapes into her studies, one of the few children who bus to a local school.
Fears of punishments and schoolyard bullies all fade into the background when an older girl, Jane Denton, goes missing, her murdered body found some days later. When another girl disappears, Jonesy determines to find out who the murderer is, while Lesley acts as a sounding board and is dragged into Jonesy’s sleuthing, throwing the girls into danger. What follows is a fairly classic mystery with plenty of secrets and hidden motives.
And while this is entertaining, it is the characters of the girls, especially Lesley’s narrative voice, sensitive and smart but also easily led down blind alleys, that make the story interesting. That and the strikingly original setting. It’s difficult to forget that these are vulnerable children who deserve so much better. Fortunately not all the adults are unsympathetic. Eadie is the kindly therapist who listens and offers advice; there’s a friendly detective and Lesley gets help just in the nick of time from an unexpected quarter.
The Homes makes for a compelling story, part mystery, part social commentary, that will have you riveted until the last page. But the story behind the story is just as interesting. I wonder what Mylet will come up with next. This book gets a four out of five from me.