Jean is a repressed spinster who scrapes a living as a house-sitter for an agency. All her life she has set up temporary abode in various people's rich and large houses, obeying their rules and when no jobs are around, inhabiting an unpleasant boarding-house. As HALF BROKEN THINGS opens, Jean is told by Shelley at the agency that her current job will be her last, as Jean is reaching mandatory retirement age. Not only does this news fill Jean with suppressed rage, but also it fills her with terror, as she cannot even afford to live in the miserable bed and breakfast that is the nearest thing to home for her.
Jean's current job is caring for Walden Manor, a beautiful house in the countryside near Bath, whose owners are abroad. Jean is allowed only to use the kitchen, one bedroom and a bathroom. But when she accidentally breaks a teapot and a set of keys falls out, she sets out to explore the rest of the house, gradually adopting a new persona, that of the person Jean imagines as the beautiful mansion's owner. As Jean becomes bolder about her new role, we read about her miserable childhood and how she has arrived at the state she's in.
There are two other stories being told in parallel to Jean's: one is of Michael, who takes quite an academic approach to his petty thievery of small churches; and the other concerns Steph, a pregnant, educationally ignorant teenager abused by her partner and whose first child was removed at birth by the social services. It is inevitable that these characters would eventually meet, and I could not work out how the author would make this happen in a believable fashion, as they are all living in such different spheres. I was impressed by the deft way Morag Joss engineered the encounters, which result in the three misfits setting out on a new life together in the manor. Of course, the reader is uncomfortably aware that it is only a matter of time before the various pasts catch up with them – the question being whose, and how.
This book is written in a restrained style that makes it all the more moving and effective. I thoroughly enjoyed it, although the suspension of disbelief required became harder to maintain as it neared the end. The continued absence of the rightful owners of the house, the rather romanticised story of Steph's transformation, and the lack of interest by the agency in keeping tabs on the property, as well as an unconvincing section when Shelley finally pays a visit, do not ring quite true. However, these are cavils. Overwhelmingly, the book is assured and involving; Jean's life story and predicament are truly moving, and Michael is an originally presented, quirkily charming character in that kind of "under the radar" way that sometimes happens when an initially unsympathetic person comes into the reader's full perspective as a book progresses. Steph is a less convincing, although sympathetic, character. Overall, this book reminded me strongly of Ruth Rendell's psychological novels, and is of a similar, very high, standard.