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Romania’s state orphanages are change of direction for rom-com author

The World at My Feet by Catherine Isaac

Can delving into the deeply buried past help to solve problems in the present?

This emotive conundrum lies at the heart of a powerful and insightful novel from a Liverpool author who found fame under the pseudonym Jane Costello with a string of witty and wonderful rom-coms, but then changed both her nom-de-plume and her writing direction to win an army of new fans.

The World at My Feet – a meditative and moving tale which sweeps us from post-revolution Romania to the idyllic English countryside – is the third book for former journalist and editor of the Liverpool Daily Post, Catherine Isaac, whose ‘new kind of novel’ has carried her straight back into the bestsellers list.

When she set out on this intriguing path, Isaac declared that her new genre would be ‘exploring some difficult themes but with compassion and humour,’ and, following on from the outstandingly successful You Me Everything and Messy Wonderful Us, this emotional, sometimes harrowing but ultimately uplifting rollercoaster ride through dark corners and sunlit uplands is a truly affecting reading experience.

Sometimes 34-year-old gardener Ellie Heathcote finds it hard to believe that she can earn ‘actual hard cash’ from her work as an Instagram influencer. Her garden is her sanctuary, her pride and joy, and it’s from there that she posts daily diaries and tips that have won her nearly 57,000 avid followers.

What they don’t see is the stack of rubbish behind Ellie’s shed and the sweat and mud on her body after a day of hard toil, and what they don’t know is that she hasn’t left the annexe and gardens of her parents’ home, high on the idyllic grassy hills of the Chilterns, for two years.

Ellie’s followers don’t want ‘ugly and messy’ and why should they when they live in a nasty enough world? Ellie’s life, too, isn’t all sweetness and light. She suffers from nightmares and agoraphobia, and despite a happy childhood with her loving parents and sister, dark shadows hang over her earliest years.

Her peaceful annexe, with her rescue dog Gertie alongside her, is both her home and her ‘safety net,’ but then someone enters her life, someone who could finally be the reason she needs to overcome her fears.

Nearly twenty years earlier, Harriet is a high-flying journalist who has won her first job in Fleet Street. She’s a top class reporter – fast, accurate, determined and able to report compassionately – but she also knows not to get too emotionally involved, and how to steer clear of danger.

Soon Harriet’s expertise and professionalism are taking her to some of the world’s most dangerous places where she asks questions and tries to make a difference. But when she is sent to Romania, to see the shocking conditions inside the state orphanages that the world is only just learning about, she is forced to rethink her most important rule…

Packed with the acute psychological insight, natural warmth, wry comedy and the exquisitely drawn characters that we have come to expect from Isaac, The World at my Feet is a story about the transformative power of love in its many forms as one woman uncovers the past in the hope of reshaping her future.

‘Using a wealth of research, her remarkable capacity for empathy and genuine compassion, Isaac tackles serious mental health issues’

Using a wealth of research, her remarkable capacity for empathy and genuine compassion, Isaac tackles serious mental health issues – and the heartbreaking conditions found inside Romania’s state orphanages after the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu – with unflinching honesty.

But this rich and compelling journey of self-discovery, spanning the lives of two women and two very different worlds, never loses its sense of eternal optimism, rooted firmly as it is in love and family ties, and grounded by moments of pure comedy… thanks principally to a little boy called Oscar and a boisterous dog called Gertie.

These are real, complex people facing conflicting emotions and life-changing decisions and events. Their individual stories are perfectly observed, and discovering how the journey ends is just one of the many rewards of this beautiful, thought-provoking novel.

(The World at My Feet by Catherine Isaac, Simon & Schuster, paperback, £8.99)

Pam Norfolk
Pam Norfolk has been writing book reviews for over ten years, including for the Wordsworth Trust. She has also worked as a reporter and sub-editor on regional and national newspapers.

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