The List of Suspicious Things by Jennie Godfrey

I’d started seeing a lot of love for this novel on X. It looked a little cosy with the crow picking at the milk-bottle tops on the cover. But on opening the book, I was convinced I had to read it; Godfrey has based her debut novel on her own childhood in Yorkshire in the 1970s during which the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, waged his murderous campaign. It looms large in the novel, for the story opens with an author’s note in which Jennie Godfrey says:

One of my most vivid early memories is of the day that he [Sutcliffe] was captured, when it became clear my dad knew him. I can still feel the shock of how close he got to my family.

Last year, I read journalist and writer Catherine Taylor’s memoir The Stirrings. She was a teenager in Sheffield during the 1970s and the Ripper also loomed large in the background to her life then too, so I saw Jennie Godfrey’s novel as something of a companion piece. (Note to self: a readymade fiction / non-fiction pairing for NF Nov!)

The novel is mostly narrated by twelve-year-old Miv and begins on the day that Maggie Thatcher became PM. She has family problems, her mother has had some kind of breakdown and stopped talking, spending most of her time in her bedroom. Her dad goes down the pub to cope. Her opinionated Aunty Jean has moved in to take care of things. Aunty Jean thinks that Yorkshire is going to the dogs, and that they should think about moving ‘Down South’, something that isn’t a surprise to Miv’s father. Of course, that would be the worst thing in the world to Miv who would lose her one and only real friend, Sharon.

Miv comes up with a plan, if she can solve the case of the Yorkshire Ripper, they can surely stay. So she and Sharon begin the ‘List of Suspicious Things’. The first suspect to go on their list is Mr Bashir, who runs the corner shop, who has dark hair, a moustache and a Ford Corsair – all things attributed to the Ripper. Soon they come to see that Mr Bashir, Omar, couldn’t possibly be the Ripper, lovely man, widower and father that he is, and they get to meet and become friends with Ishtiaq, his son who goes to their school, but being Pakistani is shunned by many of their classmates.

Miv’s investigations will take her into danger, venturing to areas frequented by the Ripper and abandoned mills, but also make her look closer to home. It will test her friendship with Sharon to the limits in particular, as she and Sharon temporarily grow apart as Sharon and Ishtiaq hit it off – twas ever thus.

To say any more in detail about the events of the novel would spoil things for you, but it has everything. A believable protagonist and her coming of (teen)age story, a complex family dynamic with mental health issues to the fore. There are racial tensions as Omar and his son struggle to be accepted in their small town outside of the big cities where most of the immigrant families live. Then there is the Ripper and the fear that he engendered in the whole county, and wider afield. The author certainly took me back to those times.

Jennie Godfrey’s writing, building in all her personal experience, is always engaging. Although there is much heart-break in the pages, this novel is also funny – as you might expect from a twelve-year-old’s limited understanding of some of the issues. I particularly adored the character of Mr Bashir who invokes the spirit of his late wife in everything he does, he shows a compassion that is severely lacking in those who would attack him. You can’t help finishing this book with a good feeling inside, and wanting to visit Yorkshire!

Source: Own copy. Hutchinson Heinemann hardback, 456 pages.

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6 thoughts on “The List of Suspicious Things by Jennie Godfrey

  1. A Life in Books says:

    I remember that time, too, but had been a bit dismissive of Godfrey’s novel thanks to lots of publisher hype in my timeline. So often backfires for me, but I trust your opinion!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The Author’s note at the beginning made me take it seriously, but as most of it is told through the eyes of a twelve-year-old you have to believe in Miv to enjoy it, luckily she is a well-drawn character.

  2. madamebibilophile says:

    I was looking at this in a bookshop at the weekend, but I hesitated because I wondered if it would be too whimsical. You’ve convinced me, I wish I’d picked it up now!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      There is a level of whimsicality to it, but Godfrey doesn’t overdo it. She tackles the subjects like Miv’s confusion over her mum, bullying at school, the story of the corner shop etc. really well, but with humour as well as the pathos, she understood her characters brilliantly. I really enjoyed it.

  3. MarketGardenReader/IntegratedExpat says:

    I’d seen all the Twitter love for this, and was surprised to find it was already in a local (Dutch) bookshop, on their ‘just in’ shelf, face out. I thought I’d look closer later, was looking at a lower shelf and the assistant reached above my head. When I looked up, it was gone! And when I visited a couple of days ago, they didn’t have it in stock, nor the other book I was planning on buying, and that’s being reprinted. Zounds!

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