Dorothy Koomson occupies a spot on my favourite authors list by virtue of the fact that I absolutely, unequivocally adore one of her earlier books – My Best Friend’s Girl. Since I read that book, when I was a teenager, I have lost and then rebought it, as well as worked my way through every single book that Koomson has published before or since. None of those have really lived up to how much I loved My Best Friend’s Girl, but they’re generally always entertaining and thought-provoking, although sometimes very heavy going, and disturbing at times.
‘Do you ever wonder if you’ve lived the life you were meant to?’ I ask her.
She sighs, and dips her head. ‘Even if I do, what difference will it make?’
In 1988, two eight-year-old girls with almost identical names and the same love of ballet meet for the first time. They seem destined to be best friends forever and to become professional dancers. Years later, however, they have both been dealt so many cruel blows that they walk away from each other into very different futures – one enters a convent, the other becomes a minor celebrity. Will these new, ‘invisible’ lives be the ones they were meant to live, or will they only find that kind of salvation when they are reunited twenty years later?
The thing about Dorothy Koomson’s books, I tend to think, is that there are two distinct types of them. There are the books like The Chocolate Run, My Best Friend’s Girl, That Girl From Nowhere, Marshmallows for Breakfast, etc which deal with themes of family, love, loss, forgiveness, and are generally quite easy to read, even if they deal with some tough themes like accepting yourself, forgiving others, and dealing with grief. Then there are the other books, like The Ice Cream Girls, and The Woman He Loved Before, which deal with much darker themes of abuse, trauma, long-held resentments, and are generally much more difficult to read and possibly more impactful. That said, though, since My Best Friend’s Girl is my favourite of her novels (and indeed one of my favourite books ever), you can see which way I would lean when choosing.
When I Was Invisible falls into the second category of books. It follows two girls with almost identical names twenty years after they first met. One has just left the sisterhood (not of the travelling pants, sadly) and the other is forging a new life for herself after running away from home at the age of seventeen. The novel charts their lives coming back onto a collision course as old secrets are revealed and old betrayals revisited.
While I did enjoy When I Was Invisible, I felt like it was a kind of rehashing of a story that Koomson had told before. If I hadn’t read The Ice Cream Girls and The Woman He Loved Before, I think I would have found this just as impactful as I found those, and would have been, frankly, pretty traumatised by it. But because I had read those other books, I was looking out for the hallmarks of Koomson’s style and found them pretty early on. That then meant that I was reading the book looking for confirmation of my theories, and it felt a little like a repetition of something that had been done before.
There’s a lot of heavy-hitting stuff in this book. Dysfunctional family dynamics, homelessness, sexual/domestic abuse, drug abuse, it’s all there, and it’s crammed in tightly. As we weave backwards and forwards along Veronica and Veronika’s timelines it’s easy to see how they ended up in their own respective lives and it feels very real the whole way through. I just wasn’t really affected by it.
The Woman He Loved Before really resonated with me. I read it with a mounting sensation of horror the whole way through and thought about it for weeks after I read it – it still pops into my head every now and then. And My Best Friend’s Girl is, as I mentioned, one of my absolute favourite books. So while there’s nothing I can pinpoint as being bad or unrealistic or wrong with When I Was Invisible, I just don’t think it’s my favourite Koomson ever. Perhaps I just have very, very high standards for her.
Read on its own it’s an excellent book. It’s just not Koomson’s BEST book. Still though, it is excellent, deeply moving at times, and engrossing throughout.