This novel is definitely very suspenseful, but it also requires patience. At the beginning of the book we meet Felicia, an Irish girl of 17. She is in the family way by a young man named Johnny who has disappeared, ostensibly to work in England. Felicia's father believes he has joined the British Army, which in his eyes, is nothing better than a betrayal of Ireland. He has nothing good to say about Felicia's condition either, so, feeling ashamed, she leaves Ireland to go find Johnny.
The young man is supposedly working in Birmingham. She crosses the Irish Sea, and arrives in the Midlands in search of him. She never finds him, but we do find out that, as Felicia's father suspected, he has joined the English army. We have a strong suspicion that whatever he's been up to, he's essentially disappeared from Felicia's life and so her quest seems hopeless almost from the start.
When she arrives, instead of finding Johnny, she meets Joseph Ambrose Hilditch who is a catering manager at one of the local factories. He is the second main character in the book, and arguably, he is THE main character, and Felicia is actually secondary to the unpleasant struggles that are happening within Hilditch's mind. However, Felicia will remain the focus of the reader's sympathy, especially as the reader becomes aware of the sinister aspects of the man's personality. Felicia has her own worries and only cottons on to Hilditch just in time, and instead, she is just grateful for his kindness.
Hilditch lives alone in a cluttered but perfectly arranged house. He is both terribly alone and terribly lonely. He has tapes of a TV chef from the ‘50s which he watches repeatedly, following her cooking instructions assiduously and then getting dressed for the arduous dinner he's prepared for himself. It is obvious that he has a certain desperation to be the calm in the center of the storm for girls like Felicia. Accordingly, that is exactly what he is to her. He is jovial, friendly and completely non-threatening and he takes her under his wing.
What she's unaware of, and the reader is, is that Hilditch's kindness comes with an enormous cost. It is not clear what the cost will be, but it's fairly certain that it will be awful. The truth is that Hilditch has created what he calls his “memory Lane,” a collection of dead girls that were once as dependent on him as Felicia. When one of his dependents wants to leave him, he kills her to keep her with him.
By figuring him out before he realizes, Felicia manages to escape Hilditch. During her time with him, she also befriended people at the local Salvation Army who know that Hilditch was a friend of hers. He is so terrified of being discovered, that he kills himself.
Because she manages to escape Hilditch, this feels like it might be kind of an upbeat ending for Felicia, but it's really not. Out of necessity, her escape means she has nothing but the clothes on her back. Because she has no money, she winds up living on the streets and begging for a living.
Best part of story, including ending:
Feeling at least some sympathy for the villain. He's still a reprehensible person, but the character is so well written, that you kind of understand him.
Best scene in story:
A very dark scene near the end where Hilditch hangs himself in the kitchen of his house. There is a cat scavenging around, so to a certain extent, the scene is told from his point of view. It's a very dramatic moment told in a very matter-of-fact way, and the cat sees nothing in the room to interest him except for a saucepan with a little milk still in it.
Opinion about the main character:
Felicia is a likeable character, even though she seems mostly to be one that's acted on in most of the book. Her ability to act is well hidden but still extant. Both her initial journey and her escape from Hilditch demonstrate her ability to act decisively. Unfortunately, this saves her from being killed, but doesn't exactly make her ending upbeat.