Image of Sipsworth
Release Date: 
May 6, 2024
David R. Godine
Reviewed by: 

an existential treatise that looks over life’s shoulder with laser sharp perception from the vantage point of old age.” 

The ordinary is made extraordinary in Simon Van Booy’s Sipsworth. The breath of life is blown into the simple premise of an octogenarian coming to terms with meting out her final days, and the keen insight into domestic tedium unfolds day upon day with balanced pacing that belies what ultimately becomes a heart-and-soul transformative story centered on a mouse. 

We meet 83-year-old Helen Cartwright in the overture. “Life for her was finished . . . each day was an impersonation of the one before with only a slight shuffle . . . Not a single person who saw her boney figure flapping down Westminster Crescent could say they knew her. She was simply part of a background against which their own lives rolled unceasingly on.” 

The lure of Van Booy’s nuanced language lifts what might be maudlin to captivating heights by describing Helen’s solitary return, after 60 years abroad, to the English village in which she was raised. Just as we are lulled into the sameness of Helen’s days, Van Booy hooks the reader with, “Then early one morning, something happens.”   

The widow Cartwright is in the habit of battening down the hatches and keeping the world at arm’s length until a seemingly inconsequential act sets off a chain of events that unwittingly knock on the door of her self-imposed isolation giving her no choice but to let the world in.  

It all starts with her neighbor’s discarded fish tank, which Helen spies on the sidewalk and brings inside, and in which she discovers a living mouse. Her discovery gives rise to a search for a solution and runs the gamut from possible rodent extermination all the way through to the wider sphere of the care and maintenance of a sentient being. 

The story weaves and grows and includes a wonderful cast of village characters who come to Helen’s assistance, and, in the manner of neighborly, smalltown life, her days become filled with camaraderie and a strong sense of purpose. Whereas Helen drifted through her days preparing to die, she names the mouse, now buys it treats, and speaks to it like a family member. “Reality is all corners and sharp edges,” when Helen realizes her life is now arranged around a mouse she named Sipsworth, and that “It’s like having a baby! At eighty-three!”   

On the one hand, Sipsworth is the touching story of the soul-satisfying bond between a lonely, elderly woman and a small animal. On the other hand, it is an existential treatise that looks over life’s shoulder with laser sharp perception from the vantage point of old age. When Helen considers that some of her nagging feelings were “simply the conditions of old age and largely the same for everybody,” she concludes, “Those who in life held back in manners of love would end in bitterness. While people like her, who had filled the corners of each day, found themselves marooned on a scatter of memories.” Van Booy continues, “And herein lies the cruel paradox of human existence—not that you die, but that all happiness eventually turns against you.”  

What’s unusual about Sipsworth is that we early on are fascinated by Helen Cartwright’s private life without knowing her full story. Van Booy enlightens the reader on a need-to-know basis that unfurls in a graceful wave linking past and present.   

The author’s voice walks the line between succinct and delightfully quirky. Sipsworth is a European set story, and Van Booy seamlessly employs compatible turns of phrase that dance like poetry.  

Van Booy’s unique gift lies in scene setting: “During the night, a thick band of low-pressure snaps over the town. The house creaks as though something is trying to uproot it. Between growls of thunder the curtains flash like bared teeth. Outside, garden furniture is being rearranged like pieces on a board game.”    

There’s an enchanted quality to Simon Van Booy’s Sipsworth, an uncanny blend of reality and fable with magical turns of event that move the story forward, bringing Helen Cartwright’s past into alignment with what appears to be fatalistic framework for her life’s new beginning. Everyone who has ever loved a pet will cheer on this story. They’ll identify with Helen Cartwright’s fulfilled heart, all for the love of a mouse. 

The poignant story is masterly crafted and beautifully rendered, securing Simon Van Booy’s presence on the world-wide literary landscape as a writer of exceeding importance, whose Sipsworth will be included in a body of work sure to stand the test of time.