Do you ever wonder where the items in a charity shop have come from? What’s their story? Where do they go once bought and taken to a new home?
A love story about things…
Gwen’s life has stalled. She’s in her mid-thirties, perpetually single, her friends are busy procreating in the country and conversations with her parents seem to revolve entirely around herbaceous borders and the council’s wheelie-bin timetable. Above all she’s lonely. But then, isn’t everyone?
When Gwen’s made redundant from a job she drifted into a decade ago and never left, she realises it’s time to make a change. Over what might be the best – and most solitary – meal she’s ever eaten, Gwen vows to find something meaningful to do with her life, reconnect with her family and friends – and finally book herself a dentist appointment.
Her search for meaning soon leads her to volunteer in a local charity shop where she both literally and metaphorically unloads her emotional baggage. With the help of the weird and wonderful people she meets in the shop and the donated items bursting with untold stories that pass through its doors, Gwen must finally address the events and choices that led her to this point and find a way to move forward with bravery, humanity and more regular dental care.
Brimming with life, love and the stories bound up in even the most everyday items, Preloved is a tale about friendship, loss, being true to oneself no matter the expectations – and the enduring power and joy of charity shops.
Gwen has been waiting to hear about a promotion at her work when she is made redundant – the real reason for which is revealed much later on in the book (but no spoilers) and if she’s being honest she feels as though she’s stagnating. Her relationships with her friends don’t seem to be going anywhere, to the point that she actually avoids spending too much time with them. She’s been isolating herself almost since the day she told her fiance that their relationship was over 5 years ago.
As she is sitting in a restaurant eating a solo dinner to celebrate her birthday (thus showing us, the readers, the isolated life she has made for herself), she starts to put together a to-do list of all the tasks she has been avoiding for far too long. One of these chores is to dispose of the engagement ring that she has been holding on to since the abrupt ending of the relationship. She takes this, and other items she has been keeping, to a local charity shop and so starts the journey to her new life.
Having unloaded her physical baggage at the charity shop she ends up starting a new journey, volunteering her time in the same shop where her engagement ring is now an item waiting to be loved by someone new.
As the book continues we get to know the other people who have found their way to the shop, there is Nicolas, Asha, Connie and St Michael (who hovers more on the periphery like an amused uncle watching the proceedings as they occur). But there are also the stories of the items that have found their way into this shop, an umbrella, a book, a vase, a clock.
It is through the clock that we learn Nicolas’s true character (which isn’t overly pleasant, we have been giving him the benefit of the doubt until this point).
We also find out more about Gwen and what really led her to this point in her life, the reason she has isolated herself, the ending of her engagement to a man she admits was perfectly nice but not who she needed at that time. It is through the revelation that she is still grieving the sudden death of a younger brother she regrets not spending more time with that she is able to bond with Asha, another volunteer who has hidden away from life and doesn’t want to get back to the high powered job that caused her to experience a mental breakdown.
Through facing her fears and trying to piece her life back together she rebuilds the bonds with her old friends, especially Suze, who though married to a perfectly nice man, has also been hiding from something she needs to face in order to move on.
Every character in this book, and every item that is preloved and finding its new home, has something to come to terms with, to face before they can make the next steps in their lives.
I loved the way that the stories of the preloved items slowly merged together to make Gwen’s story that much more moving. The jumper, the odd vase, the messy bedroom, the watch. Every one of these things seemed to separate and disconnected in the beginning and though the stories were moving it was difficult to see what their relevance was, but the further you got into the story and the more you learned about Gwen and her past the more you could see how interconnected these items and their individual stories were. They linked Gwen to her parents, her brother and her best friend and through their introductions to the tale she slowly started to come back to herself.
Preloved is, to me, a story of connections, of memories and about how you need to face the past to move into the future.
I enjoyed getting to know Gwen and seeing how she slowly gained strength and was able to take power from letting go.
This book doesn’t shie away from the more complicated issues. The topic of trauma when talking about the death of Gwen’s brother Luke who died suddenly at just 19 is handled sensitively. Another subject that seems to be one that is so divisive is childlessness. Suze and her husband are at an impasse when it comes to the topic of children; he wants them, but she doesn’t.
Though it takes a lot of gin and an afternoon in front of the TV, Suze finally acknowledges that she doesn’t want to be a mother. This is something that many struggle with…and the author handles Suze’s decision and her knowledge that she has to be selfish in making the choice is written very well.
As someone who likes to imagine the stories behind items I find in charity shops (especially those books with notes in the margins), this made me smile. It wasn’t full of excitement and action, but it was a gentle meander through a map of stories that were inextricably linked through a series of happy and painful memories.
- Reduce, reuse, recycle, a positive message in an age of materialism
- The story of Gwen and her parents
- The book doesn’t shy away from sensitive subjects
- That Nicolas wasn’t as nice as I wished he were (his character was well written, but his actions disappointed me)