SAPPHIRE – (Working Girls #5)
Sophie and Kelsey have always had each other. When their mum is diagnosed with cancer and their dad fails to step up, they’re forced to move into the care system. But Sophie knows they’ll be okay as long as she’s there to protect her sister.
One final chance
But when Kelsey is found a foster family and Sophie can’t join her, Sophie’s left in an unsafe situation in the home, forced to do things against her will. Finding her own foster family feels like a relief, but it’s short lived when her trust in her new foster parents is betrayed.
No going back
With nowhere to turn, Sophie finds herself homeless. But when she finds her new street family, Sophie joins the working girls and her new identity as Sapphire is complete. It’s a hard life working the streets, especially when those around her look to take advantage, but can the dream of one day finding Kelsey keep her going?
During the 1990s the estate became the headquarters for one of Manchester’s predominant gangs. It regularly featured in the local press due to shootings and drug-related problems. Heather draws heavily on this background as the setting for many of her novels.
After taking a career break to raise two children Heather enrolled on a creative writing course. During that time she had many articles published in well-known magazines and went on to run a writing services business before focusing on her novels.
Heather now works full-time on her novels from her home in Manchester which she shares with her two grown-up children.
Heather has a lovely website where you can keep up with all her news
You can follow Heather on Twitter
You can also check in with Heather on Facebook
In a state of slumber, Sapphire snuggled deeper into the sleeping bag and pulled it tightly around her shoulders, trying to block out the biting wind. She had placed her makeshift bed as far back in the shop doorway as possible, but the chilly night air still found her, and her bones ached from the hard tiled floor.
PART ONE – FAMILY (2001 – 2005)
Sue checked her bank statement one more time and did a quick calculation. She was perturbed by the result. Almost half the money was gone already. If she carried on spending at this rate, she would have nothing left in another five years. There wasn’t enough! She needed the money to last at least until Kelsey and Sophie were both adults and, at the moment, they were still only eight and ten.
“She presumed they thought they’d end up with their father, and she didn’t have the heart to tell them otherwise. She vowed to herself that she would do so soon; it was only fair that they were forewarned. But it never seemed to be the right time to tell her girls that, not only were they going to lose their mother, but their father had rejected them too”
“Since they had lived in the children’s home, the girls’ bond had grown tighter. Because of their shared grief it had seemed natural for the girls to turn to each other for emotional support in a house full of strangers. Their family unit had shrunk from three to two, and now they lived further away from their school friends, so they relied on each other for a social outlet too”
“She’d seen it all before, unfortunately, where troubled children entered the system and were led astray by those who had already become hardened to the way of life”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Sophie. Everybody needs family, real family, and nobody else can take their place”
“Janice thought of the perils that would face a vulnerable and homeless young girl and her heart cried out to Sophie. She wondered where she had fled to and what she would be doing right now. Wherever she was and whatever situation she had got herself into, Janice prayed that she would be safe”
“She had nothing to share and no one to share it with”
“She’s got her street family but who can she trust?”
Oh My Goodness! How many more of these tear-jerkers can I read in such quick succession. I know I like to become immersed in a storyline, but this much dread and anguish, I can do without, especially when you take into account the ‘gritty’ undertones of the story and the fact that it involves vulnerable young people! However author Heather Burnside’s addictive narrative and dialogue and some truly heartfelt and authentic storytelling, held me in angry thrall from the very first, to the very final word and then only reluctantly was I able to tear myself away from its clutches.
The story hit the ground running and the first tissue was needed after just a few pages. The storyline moved along seamlessly at a cracking pace, with the tension ratcheted up exponentially, helped by some short, well signposted chapters keeping the timeline in clear focus. I was holding my breath by the time the end was in sight, as things didn’t look as though they were going to pan out too well, however there was more than a glimmer of hope on the horizon for a more stable future and that I definitely was not expecting, so the tears were more of the happy kind by then!
Whilst I am detailing the outline of the story, believe me, this really only does touch the sides and scratch the surface, of the journey I was taken on in my reading of this book, so no real ‘spoilers’ as such!
I have no idea just how you tell two children, who are not yet even teenagers, that they are going to be left alone in the world because their father has refused to accept them back into his life, now that he has a new family making demands on his time, and more importantly his wallet! This story only goes to highlight, that as much as we might think the social care system in this country is broken beyond repair now, it was always that way as long as twenty years ago, only we just never got to hear about it in the same way. Foster parents were thin on the ground, especially those willing to take on older children and children’s homes were administered by some very corrupt and shady characters who immediately put the girls on their guard, that’s when they weren’t trying to fend off the bully adolescent whose anger manifested itself in some very inappropriate ways. Sophie and Kelsey were lucky, if you can call it luck!, that they had a conscientious, caring and attentive social worker in Janice, who was a constant throughout the next decade or more, in her efforts to help both the girls, to whom she had become very attached. Her dedication was to be applauded, although it seems as though her hands were tied behind her back, no matter who in authority she turned to for help, and someone with less compassion would have given up the fight much sooner.
Everyone seemed completely oblivious to the fact that the girls were grieving for their mother, as everything, out of necessity and because of Sophie and Kelsey’s age, had needed to be arranged and actioned almost immediately. That their grief should manifest itself in such completely different ways, was also an unknown that had not been foreseen and which no one apart from Janice was prepared to even try to understand and make allowances for. As the older of the siblings, it was in fact Sophie who was least able to cope and deal with her bereavement, in a way which was acceptable to the outside agencies, who would have been quite happy if she had only become compliant and invisible. Her anger and hatred for the system which she knows is failing her, is palpable and extremely physical, so when Kelsey is separated from her and sent to a good foster home, Sophie is completely devastated, although throughout the story, it is obvious that she never stops thinking about Kelsey, wondering how she is and trying to track her down, although eventually she realises just how low she has sunk on the depravity scale and convinces herself that no one good or nice, will ever want to get anywhere near her, let alone acknowledge their relationship with her. Sophie is finally fostered by what appears to be a very acceptable couple, who in fact turn out to be religious zealots and rather than helping Sophie when her teenage struggles with her sexuality surface, try to convince her that she has an illness which must be cured.
All out of trust, Sophie, now Sapphire, absconds and her next decade is spent rough sleeping on the streets of Manchester, with the inevitable slide into drug dependency, sexual depravity, beatings, and alcohol abuse. Her shame, guilt and sense of worthlessness, are quickly replaced by the need to survive, fight for everything she can get and not be taken advantage of any more than she already has been. When her self-appointed protector and boyfriend, dies of an overdose in front of her, a much matured Sophie takes matters into her own hands and decides that as all he really ever did was pimp her out, she would make her own way on the streets, selling her body. She is taken under the wing of a small group of much older more experienced girls, who try to protect her the best way they can, although there are some punters who will break them no matter how careful they are, as Sapphire discovers to her cost. When one punter in particular sickens Sapphire to her very core and a friend proves to be anything but, Sapphire is at her wits end and more vulnerable than she has ever been before! Can her faith in humanity and her hope for a better future be rekindled, when two faces from a past that just will not let her go, hope to prove to her that blood is thicker than water and that she is more loved and wanted than she ever dared to dream!
This is a powerful, well structured, gripping, multi-layered storyline, which is as much a work of disturbing cultural fiction, so clearly and succinctly does it highlight the forgotten world of those missing teenagers who wind up surviving on the streets in the best way that they can. The sheer desperate intensity of life’s struggle is visceral and highly textured, the writing skilled, fluid and evocative. The detailed descriptive narrative and down to earth dialogue, isn’t always pretty and nor is it meant to be, but it throws into sharp relief, a reality which is all around us, much as we might not like to accept or acknowledge it. The skilled imagery of Heather’s way with words, also evokes a genuine sense of time and place, offering an almost too perceptive and claustrophobic, three dimensional visual depth to this flat and lugubrious way of existence, as strangers pass by on the other side of the road in an effort to convince themselves that none of what they see is real.
Heather has developed a compelling and multi-faceted cast of characters, who, without needing any second bidding, are more than happy to make their voices heard, as they tell their story loud and clear, for those brave enough to listen and hear. Collectively they are a complex jigsaw of human emotions; duplicitous, manipulative, unreliable and volatile, making them almost impossible to invest in or identify with. However, strip away their bravado and their inherent vulnerabilities, raw passion and emotional starvation, soon surface in those few and far between, unguarded moments of lucid reality. I think my most hated character was that of Sophie’s father and the person I most respected would have to be social worker, Janice. Society would definitely be much improved with a lot less of the former and more of the latter, then maybe the Sophies and Kelseys of this world would not need to continue to fight battles they simply can’t win!
What typically makes reading such a wonderful experience for me, is that with each and every new book, I am taken on a unique and individual journey, by authors who fire my imagination and stimulate my senses. This story had the power to evoke so many strong emotions, that I’m sure I won’t have felt the same way about it as the last reader, nor the next. It really is a journey you need to make for yourself and see where it leads you!
Although this is episode #5 in the “Working Girls” series and we do meet characters from the previous books, they are introduced as though we didn’t know them, with just enough detail to make them credible ‘extras’ in the plot, making this a perfectly good stand alone story.
Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article which promotes this book or its author.
I personally do not agree with ‘rating’ a book, as the overall experience is all a matter of personal taste, which varies from reader to reader. However some review sites do demand a rating value, so when this review is posted to such a site, it will attract a well deserved 5 out of 5 stars!