Walters pulls no punches in a devastating novel of racism, sexism and misogyny, a young wife witness in 1978 London to the violent death of the only black resident of an all-white, economically barren neighborhood. The police view the battered body and declare the death accidental: Mrs. Ranelagh cries murder. But time and circumstance are against her, neither the authorities nor her husband or mother willing to entertain the possibility. After an outrageous assault on her home and person by incensed neighbors and the rejection of the police (the officer himself a blatant racist), Mrs. Ranelagh and her husband leave London for Hong Kong. Twenty years and two sons later, Mrs. Ranelagh returns, bringing with her years of carefully compiled documents and a private agenda to reopen Annie's case and finally mete out justice to the culprit or culprits responsible. If she harbors a yearning for a bit of revenge as well, who can blame a woman who was treated as an emotional incompetent, ignored by everyone, even her family. Served cold, this dish is piquant.
Walters makes a cogent argument for a woman's place in society in the late 1970s-early 1898s, exacerbated by racial prejudice and male superiority. Given the poverty of Graham Street and the preponderance of council houses, stereotypes abound, Annie an easy target for the bullies anxious to vent. It is Mrs. Ranelagh's evolution that is fascinating, from her delicate mental condition following the murder and the concerted efforts by the locals to make her a victim of the same cruelty they rained on Annie Butts. Her husband's indifference and the local investigating policeman's harassment drive the young wife to the edge, even her overbearing mother contributing to the already burdened woman's nightmare. In spite of everything, Mrs. Ranelagh endures, one of the most interesting relationships with her husband, Sam, who has his own personal guilt to deal with, unable to befriend his wife. That the marriage survives is significant.
Working with a wide array of characters, Walters rebuilds the bleak circumstances of Annie's death, philandering husbands, wife-beaters, child-abusers and other social misfits that inhabit the area. Their parents mired in drink and brutality, the children run the streets, aping their parents for lack of better examples. In this scenario, virtually everyone has a secret, save Mrs. Ranelagh, who bears the weight of neighborhood hostility. Stronger from her ordeal, Mrs. Ranelagh puts everyone to shame with her determination, including Sam, who must take responsibility for his own failings. Literally fearless, the protagonist pursues every avenue, turns over every mud-caked rock and faces the animosity of those involved in a bid to find justice for Annie Butts and respect for herself. Twenty years is a long time to wait to redress the past, but this is an exceptional woman familiar with patience: "If you sit by the river long enough the bodies of all your enemies float by." Luan Gaines/ 2008.