1 The trouble with reading Stevie Davies's latest novel is that the woman writes so beautifully, you find yourself reading very slowly. "Come on, love," says the heroine Jess as you open the book, "let's saunter. When did we last amble? We're always on the gallop — especially you poor love." And even though she's talking to her husband — handsome, solid and dependable Jacob, to whom she's been happily married for 20 years — it might well be an exhortation to the reader.

And so you, too, stop galloping. You find yourself sinking into a chair or maybe even going to bed unusually early to abandon yourself to a world in peaceful Shrewsbury where Jess, a pillar of the community, lives in the house where she was born, together with Jacob's mother May, his aunt Brenda and uncle Nathan. They came to stay after "the golden interlude" when she and Jacob had fostered a much-loved child. With selfless dedication and quiet religious conviction, she's given up her job as a librarian to care for the oldies.

Fortysomething woman in denial and masochist supreme, Jess insists she's enjoyed "a more fulfilled life" than anyone she'd ever known. Too good to be true and as fascinating as a rainy Sabbath? Well, Jacob thinks so. Tired of sharing his life with a childless, sexless saint and demanding relatives whom Jess calls "sweetheart, darling and love", he disappears on page five.

Slowly and inexorably, Jess's life starts to fall apart. She now has to question the entire foundations on which her life has been built, to ponder the question:
"Higgamus hoggamus,
woman's monogamous,
hoggamus higgamus,
man is polygamous"

— and to cope with the younger woman in Jacob's life. She realises, among other things, that she is "a blade, sheathed". It's hard to build a new life while still tending to a manipulative, spectacularly selfish chatterbox mother-in-law who once punched a health visitor on the jaw because she didn't like her face; or while fretting about dignified Nathan who thinks he should go into a home. And catering to frail, nervous Brenda, who spends even longer in the lavatory than May. There are good friends, even a man who shows interest, and Jess isn't the type to crack or walk away from those she cares for. Or is she?

Stevie Davies reveals all in a novel which is tender, perceptive, almost painful in its honesty and hilariously funny. Its characters are so marvellously drawn that you want more, more, more. I started to re-read this book the moment I'd finished it in case I'd missed a precious line. There are good writers, there are very good writers. And there is Stevie Davies, who is in a class of her own.
  Marcelle D'Argy Smith, The Independent


2 Webs are exquisite structures, and in admiring them it is easy to lose sight of the purpose behind their intricacy. Jessie Copplestone's web of belonging is a sunlit thing at first glance. She lives in Shrewsbury, by the banks of the olive-green, sliding, deceptive Severn. Childless Jessie with her childbearing hips has given up her job to care for her husband Jacob's aged mother, aunt and cousin. She nicknames them "the Oldies" and builds for them a life clotted with endearments. She soothes and fondles, humours and tolerates, until one day Jacob goes out to the pub and never returns.

Bit by bit, Stevie Davies draws a terrifyingly accurate map of this web of belonging, and of its operations. There has been an efficient parcelling-up of human beings into victims, nourishment for the needs of the creator of the web. But do the hungry Oldies prey upon Jessie, or is Jessie satisfying her own appetite for dependants? Perhaps Jessie is a woman whose ideals contort not only her own behaviour but that of everybody around her.

Over the past ten years Davies has been steadily building a reputation as a comic novelist of the highest order. Like Kingsley Amis, she can make the reader shudder with recognition as her characters embark upon their set pieces of folly and self-deception.

Jessie's mother-in-law May brags, brawls and maddens everyone around her to drive off her own terror of encroaching helplessness. As an exhausted Jessie struggles to help her three charges upstairs to bed, May hectors her over the pleasures of riding on the stair-lift. "You see, you can have fun at home: you don't need to keep gadding and gallivanting off. Go on, treat yourself." In May, farce unites with an understanding of pain.

Davies exploits her use of a first-person narrative to the hilt. By making Jessie tell her own story, she allows us to measure the gap between Jessie's ruthless powers of observation and her cloying conversational style. This is a woman who is pretending for dear life to be something which she is not. As she chirrups her "dears" and "darlings", she meets her own eyes in the mirror and sees "a blank dread" in her brown stare. The dread can be slapped down, but it rises again, and in the end Jessie looks back at it. Coolly, Davies underlines her point that a welter of busyness offers no immunities. And later on Jessie may perform time-honoured end-of-marriage rites such as cutting her hair and buying a pair of dangly earrings, but The Web of Belonging refuses any comfortable transformation from domesticity to feistiness.

Like all true comic writers, Davies is at her toughest when she is most entertaining, and so she slips through barriers which would otherwise be raised in alarm against her observations.
  Helen Dunmore, The Times


3 A story about marital breakdown that lays on emotion with a trowel. Dee-Dee is middle-aged, without children but essentially maternal in her attitude to her husband, Jacob, and his three elderly relatives, all of whom share their home. Suddenly, her world of family, church and provincial life implodes. Jacob leaves her for a younger woman who is pregnant; worse, he weasels out of any responsibility and Dee-Dee has to struggle to retain her own sense of moral values. Sharply written, the book tackles a number of topical issues head on.
Rating   ***
Mail on Sunday


4 The "web of belonging" of Stevie Davies's sixth novel has an ambivalent meaning. On the one hand there are the connotations of comfort, of feeling safe, and of life as an intricate piece of weaving where an individual has an affirming part to play in creating the pattern; on the other, there is the image of the spider's web, trapping hapless insects in its sticky mesh — here "belonging" sounds potentially life-threatening.

Jess, the novel's heroine, is also ambivalent — about herself, her role in life, and other people; about, in fact, belonging. When we first encounter her, she appears entirely sure of herself. She is devoted to her reliable husband, selflessly cares for his elderly relatives nicknamed "the Oldies", is busily involved with church activities, and tells herself she has a blessed life — she is the sort of woman likely to be termed "the salt of the earth" and apparently happy with it.

And then suddenly everything falls apart.

With the falling apart, all that Jessie has lived by comes into question. Is her selflessness genuine, or does her care for others actually stem from an urgent need to be needed and to control? What was really going on in her marriage? Who is this raging woman hiding behind the saint, and which character is the "real" Jessie?

Davies has enough understanding of human nature — and of the art of novel-writing — to know that these are the questions to pose but also that they can never be fully answered. En route to potential, contingent answers she takes some captivating detours: her descriptions of the trials of looking after two old ladies — one with a troublesome bladder, the other wildly and exuberantly mad — are horrifically humorous and entirely believable.

Also extremely well handled is the depiction of a collapsed relationship, with the hourly mood-swings between fury and despair, and the desire to have the erring partner back at all costs alternating with the urge to slice him up and fling the pieces round the room.

Davies spins the threads of love and guilt, joy and grief, into a complex and readable web.
  Church Times


5 Let's be honest. There can't be that many books that we would heartily recommend to a whole range of our friends — both male and female, young and old, Guardian readers and fans of Brookside — because, let's face it, we all have our own personal tastes. One man's meat is another man's poison, as they say.

But "The Web of Belonging" by... Stevie Davies is a novel that is so beautifully written and so full of universal truths that I have so far not missed an opportunity to rave about it to all and sundry. So much so that I now have a queue lining up to borrow my copy. And the book seems to generate a good deal of interest whenever I start enthusing about it.

So what's so great about it? Well, it's certainly a poignant tale, it's also very funny and it's also illuminating when it comes to what artists are prone to call "the human condition"...

"The Web of Belonging" centres around Jess who has lived peaceably with her husband, Jacob, for many years — contented to be his wife and care for his elderly relatives. Then, suddenly, everything changes. Jacob pops out one evening for a drink down at The Crown ... But he doesn't come back.

In fact, Jacob has left Jess in favour of a — well, frankly, a sexier woman. This lady has children (Jacob has always wanted children) and they live a very different kind of life... Now poor rejected Jess must question the entire basis on which she has lived so many years of her life. She must discover whether the identity she has created has really been valuable to herself and to those around her, and whether there is a different — angry, passionate, fulfillable — Jess waiting to get out... This is an astute and tender book...
  Phil Gillam, Shropshire Star


This entire presentation Copyright © Stevie Davies