Eleven-year-old Mouse de Bruin (she doesn’t like her given name) has lost the ability to talk. Not that this prevents her from communicating, as shown by her penchant for writing indignant letters while posing as her mother, or sending text messages to random numbers. At the start of Paul Wilson’s seventh novel, Mouse and her mother move into a farmhouse near Manchester; we soon learn that there’s a background of tragedy and break-up, but Mouse also has a story to piece together herself. She discovers a cache of letters belonging to William Crosby, the previous tenant, and becomes fascinated by his life. While serving as a captain in Italy during the Second World War, he had to deal with a group of Cossack refugees – and he fell in love with their interpreter.
As a narrator, Mouse is fascinating: sometimes likeably precocious, sometimes unpleasantly manipulative. She refuses to tell her old friend Lucas where she now lives, constructing an elaborate fantasy of moving between different hotels in London, rather than admitting that she’s actually in the same city as he. There’s a sense that this is fundamentally about control: Mouse has seen so much upheaval that she wants some form of stability in her world; insisting that people communicate with her on her own terms gives her that.
Then, into her life comes William Crosby, revealed to be as multi-faceted a personality as Mouse is herself. Wilson establishes some interesting parallels and contrasts between the two characters: both of their speaking voices have been silenced, hers by selective mutism, his by the passage of time. Both have made efforts to communicate with others in writing, but their true selves remain hidden – Mouse seems not to want to admit her true feelings, and William never sent the letters that would reveal his.
In Mouse and the Cossacks, Paul Wilson has created an engaging study of two characters whose complexities can only be glimpsed by the people around them, a study that reflects on how communication can change a life.
David Hebblethwaite blogs at Follow the Thread, where he hosts the Sunday Story Society, a book club for short stories.