Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford
Published in 2013 by Ballantine books
My copy: Library
William Eng has lived at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage for five long years, ever since his mother’s listless body was carried from their Chinatown apartment. When, during a trip to the movie theatre, William glimpses an actress on the silver screen, he is immediately struck by her features. Because Willow Frost is many things – a singer, a dancer, a movie star – but most of all, William is convinced, she is his mother. Determined to find her, William attempts to confront the mysteries of his past. But the story of Willow Frost is far more complicated than any Hollywood fantasy …
I really enjoyed Ford’s debut novel, Hotel On The Corner of Bitter and Sweet when I read it a while back, so I was really keen to check this one too. And there are similarities – both feature a young boy as the main protagonist, and are set in Seattle.
This book kicks off in 1934. William is 11 and is in an orphanage where he has nightmares about his mother’s body being carried from their apartment. He is friends with a blind girl, Charlotte, but like the other children, hopes for his parents to one day return.
On a trip to the cinema William sees a film starring the actress Willow Frost, who he becomes sure is his mother. Then we flashback to the 20s to hear Willow’s story…
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and found it very easy to read with a compelling storyline. It is extremely sad in places and I found myself feeling so sorry for William and, later, for Willow, who both found themselves in situations out of their control. The depiction of life for the Chinese community in Seattle in the 20s and 30s is really interesting, and you do feel yourself being transported to that time. I remember this was something Ford also did very well in his previous novel, and I loved the setting of this book too. There is also a real contrast between the orphanage and Willow’s apartment, and the movie star lifestyle into which we also get a glimpse.
This is quite a simple story really, and I read the book in about two days. But despite the simplicity it is very touching and you feel you learn something too. The characters and the setting work really well, and I think the minor characters such as William’s friend Sunny, and Willow’s boss Mr Butterfield give the novel a well-rounded feel.
My rating: 9 out of 10