Publisher: Lightning Books (April 2021)

ISBN: 9781785632303


Madeline Dewhurst


LONGLISTED: Bath Novel Award

‘Dazzling… keeps you guessing till the end’
– Emily Bullock

Edith, an elderly widow with a large house in an Islington garden square, needs a carer. Lauren, a nail technician born in the East End, needs somewhere to live. A rent-free room in lieu of pay seems the obvious solution, even though the pair have nothing in common.

Or do they? Why is Lauren so fascinated by Edith’s childhood in colonial Kenya? Is Paul, the handsome lodger in the basement, the honest broker he appears? And how does Charity, a Kenyan girl brutally tortured during the Mau Mau rebellion, fit into the equation?

Capturing the spirited interplay between two women divided by class, generation and a deeper gulf from the past, and offering vivid flashbacks to 1950s East Africa, Madeline Dewhurst’s captivating debut spins a web of secrets and deceit – where it’s not always obvious who is the spider and who is the fly.


I didn’t like the house at first. I literally felt like it was looking down and judging me. It and all the other houses in the square, all of them exactly the same, with their shiny blank windows, glossy black front doors and spotless grey brickwork, no gaps, no cracks, all of them lined up against me.

‘All right mate,’ I thought. ‘You might be high and mighty, looking like you belong on Downing Street or something, but we’ll see who’s going to end up the winner here.’

That was the other thing about the house. Right from the beginning I found myself talking to it like it was a person.

Even the pavement was clean. No litter or ground-in gum. Nothing. Just this old-fashioned bike with a basket, chained to the railings. It was so quiet there, you couldn’t even hear any traffic. Just some birds chattering in the bushes.



I didn’t like the house at first. I literally felt like it was looking down and judging me. It and all the other houses in the square, all of them exactly the same, with their shiny blank windows, glossy black front doors and spotless grey brickwork, no gaps, no cracks, all of them lined up against me.

‘All right mate,’ I thought. ‘You might be high and mighty, looking like you belong on Downing Street or something, but we’ll see who’s going to end up the winner here.’

That was the other thing about the house. Right from the beginning I found myself talking to it like it was a person.

Even the pavement was clean. No litter or ground-in gum. Nothing. Just this old-fashioned bike with a basket, chained to the railings. It was so quiet there, you couldn’t even hear any traffic. Just some birds chattering in the bushes.

The park in the middle was lovely though – full of big old trees. A woman was sitting on a bench in the sun eating a sandwich and reading a magazine. She looked like she was enjoying her lunch break. I wished I could swap places with her.

It took ages for Mrs Forbes to open the front door. I thought maybe the bell wasn’t working, or she might be deaf and not hear it. I lifted the brass knocker and gave a little rap. I didn’t want to come across as rude or impatient. The longer I waited the more jittery I got. My palms were all sweaty from nerves, I wiped them on my skirt in case she shook my hand.

I could just walk away now, before it was too late. Forget the whole crazy scheme. I didn’t really want to meet Edith Forbes; didn’t want anything to do with her.

I had to give myself a little pep talk. This wasn’t just about me, I was doing it for Nan. And it wasn’t like I had any other options. I couldn’t stay at Sam’s much longer – she needed her bedroom back to herself. I could tell her parents were getting pissed off with me being there. Her mum kept asking if I’d found somewhere else yet. Like I could afford anywhere in London.

I looked up at the house towering above me. I’d be mad to pass up the chance to live here. It was bang in between two tube stations instead of miles from anywhere, like Mum’s was. Think of the fares I’d save getting into work, and it would be easier to get up to Colindale for my courses. No more having to spend an hour on the bus from Southgate.

I’d never be able to look myself in the face again if I didn’t go through with this. I’d feel like a complete waste of space.

I knocked again, louder this time.

She was kind of how I expected – short silver hair set in waves, tweed skirt and pink round-neck cardigan, very M&S Tory lady. She waited for me to introduce myself before letting me in, checking me over with her light blue eyes. She was thin and a bit twitchy; seemed very with it. I’d have to watch my mouth around her.

‘I’ve made tea,’ she said, expecting me to just follow her as she thumped away down the hall with her walking-frame.

A tray was all set up in the kitchen, with cups and saucers, a milk jug and a teapot. It was the Barker Brothers Art Deco tea set, hand-painted with red and gold cherries, but of course I didn’t know that then. She’d even bought these fancy chocolate biscuits. Florentines. I think she was trying to show the kind of standards she expected from the start. Her hands shook as she poured boiling water into the teapot. Half of it splashed onto the biscuits, melting the chocolate. At least she let me carry the tray through to the front room. Well, ordered me, more like.

It was a massive room with a real marble fireplace, very old-fashioned. It had that furry wallpaper, like the Taj Mahal restaurant me and Mum used to go to for a treat, only in grey, which seemed a bit of a weird colour choice for a living room.

She made me sit on a wooden chair in the middle of the room, like I was in a gangland interrogation or something, only with tea and biscuits balanced on my lap. Talk about trying to disadvantage me.

A framed black-and-white photo hung on the wall. I guessed it was Colonel Forbes – he was wearing his uniform, medals and all. I tried not to look at it, to focus on her instead, but it was like a magnet pulling at my eyes.

She noticed. ‘Handsome chap, my husband.’ She sounded proud.

I just nodded. Couldn’t handle thinking about him right now.

Still, we hit it off straightaway, without me having to try too hard even. She’d been an actress when she was young, before she got married. She had that way of talking, you know, like Judi Dench or the duchess off of Downton.

‘Why’d you stop?’ I asked her.

‘Graham didn’t approve. I grew up in Kenya. The Europeans in Kenya may have had a reputation for louche behaviour, but I married an Englishman. Military – straight as a die. He had certain expectations of his wife.’

She had a funny way of pronouncing Kenya – ‘Keenya’ – very posh.

I told her how I was a beautician, I’d almost got my level two diploma and was training for a level three in advanced nail technology. That impressed her. She didn’t even know there was such a thing as nail technology. She said she had arthritis in her hands, could hardly move her fingers, so I offered to give them a massage. I know where the reflexology pressure points are, to stimulate blood flow and improve overall health.

I had some hand cream in my bag and I worked it gently into her hands – the loose flesh, the backs all blotchy with freckles, her knobbly fingers, her flaky nails. Old people don’t bother me. She still wore her wedding and engagement rings, yellow and white gold, the wedding ring set with round-cut diamonds and three blue sapphires, the engagement ring with a single solitaire diamond. I guess Forbes had chosen them, or maybe they picked them out together. Her fingers were a bit swollen so I had to leave them on.

I moved in a week later. Didn’t have much stuff, just Ubered it over from Sam’s. It was amazing to have my own room again – top of the house, at the back. ‘So here I am,’ I said to the house. ‘Queen of the castle and nothing you can do about it.’ I could see over the whole manor – nicely kept gardens, all tasteful shrubs and shaped lawns. Blue and white flowers, bit on the cold side. None of the bright orange or pink flowers my nan used to love. Only one house had a trampoline, a huge one with a net around it. Bet the neighbours hated that. Not that I ever saw any kids on it. Amber and Leo would’ve loved it. They were always asking Mum for a trampoline.

The house backing onto Edith’s had a conservatory built out from the kitchen. Sometimes you could see people moving about in there, glasses of wine in their hands. The couple that lived there – you could tell they loved each other from the way he kissed her on the cheek when he topped up her glass. Sometimes they just stood together looking out at the garden. When it was hot they ate outside at a long table they’d cover with a white cloth and set with all these different coloured bowls and plates and napkins – turquoise and emerald and terracotta, like something off Instagram. Then they had friends over, or their kids would be there. I guess they were students home from uni – looked the type. You could just hear the murmur of their voices and their laughter, but it never got too wild.

It was quiet there, at the back of the house. I’d leave my window open and all these amazing smells would drift up from the gardens below. Better than a Glade. Better than the smell of diesel. Apart from the odd siren, I hardly knew I was in London.

I’d told Mrs Forbes I didn’t smoke. I’d been meaning to give up anyway, there’s nothing worse than getting a facial off someone with fingers stinking of fags. I was surprised how easy it was in that house, not to smoke. It was like I was stepping into a new personality. I wish I could say I was leaving all the bad bits behind, becoming a better person, but it wasn’t like that. It couldn’t be.

Sometimes I felt homesick, seeing that family eating together, but homesick for what? What home? Mike was a dickhead, either bossing me around or ignoring me and making a big show of Amber and Leo. Mum still hadn’t forgiven me for that party.

When I said I wasn’t staying on at school they said fine, you think you’re so grown-up, you can pay your own way. You’d think they’d give me a chance to get trained up. It’s not like I could work full-time. I told Mum I could end up on Harley Street. You should see the prices those aesthetic therapists charge. It’s a growing industry.

‘But you did so well in your GCSEs. Your English teacher said you were university material.’

God knows why Miss Grey wanted me to stay on. She was always telling me off in class. Either I was talking too much or too little. It was probably just for some Ofsted form or something – make the school stats look good.

Anyway, I like doing something practical. I love messing around with all the bottles and colours, making women feel good about themselves. Some of them treat you like shit of course, but there’s others that are really nice. This lady came into the store the other day, said she’d never dared wear make-up, her husband was abusive, used to beat her up. She had a scar on her cheek from where he’d hit her. I did a full make-over for her. Took ages. But by the end you couldn’t even see the scar. She was over the moon, said I’d made her feel confident about herself again. She said I should get a job as a make-up artist on films or TV. Maybe I will – use my creative side. That’s the thing – just because I’m training in beauty therapy doesn’t mean I have to spend my life doing it.

I’m going to live like those people in the house opposite. I’m going to have the sort of home people want to visit – all warm and golden and glowing. Anyone with troubles, they’ll know they can just drop in and I’ll put on the kettle or open a bottle of something. We’ll sit around the kitchen table, or out in the garden under the trees and they’ll tell me all about it. There’ll always be a bed made up in the spare room. My husband won’t mind. He’ll be the understanding, laid-back type.

Mrs Forbes’ room was at the front of the house, on the first floor. She kept saying she’d have to move downstairs, but I told her we’d get a stair-lift. She didn’t want to give up her bedroom. It was a beautiful room. Two long windows, nearly floor to ceiling, looking out on the square. And her bed was a massive old thing with a carved headboard – we’d never of got that downstairs. Plus, she had a double wardrobe and a dressing table. It was like something out of one of those old black and white films with Katherine Hepburn or Greta Garbo I used to watch in the afternoons with Nan. Sometimes I watched them with Mrs Forbes. Her TV was crap though. I kept telling her we should get a new one – big one, with a sound bar so she could actually hear it. She said she’d think about it, which meant ‘No’ as far as Mrs Forbes was concerned.

I did offer to pay some rent – felt like I had to really – but she said she’d rather I paid her ‘in kind’.

‘I’ll train you up to be a first-rate housekeeper,’ she said.

That was OK. She could think that for now. One day I’d tell her the truth. Then she’d know I ain’t nobody’s fucking servant.


‘In Charity, Dewhurst examines patterns of guilt, recognition, shame and agency. A taut, fraught, stylish and important novel about notions of the culpable and the complicit, drawing upon the facts and fictions of an oft-neglected moment in history’

Eley Williams

‘A shocking, expertly plotted story about family and betrayal which keeps you guessing until the end. Much more than a page-turner, it shines a light on a brutal period of history, asking important questions about justice and revenge. A dazzling array of voices that brilliantly merges the past and the present’

Emily Bullock

‘By turns humorous and heart-wrenching, impeccably researched and beautifully written throughout, this is a haunting and original debut that demands to be read’

Lianne Dillsworth

‘The authenticity of its human relationships makes this hugely enjoyable tale of cultural and generational friction truly stand out. Madeline Dewhurst subtly subverts our understanding of her characters as layers of plot naturally reveal themselves. Assured and impressive, it’s hard to believe Charity is a first novel’

Tony Saint

‘An accomplished story teller, Dewhurst takes the reader on a suspenseful journey exposing dark family secrets. A brilliant debut that shines a light on our colonial past and its haunting effect on the present’

Julia Barrett

‘I love historical fiction which explores how an event from the past ripples through time and continues to impact present. Charity is one of these books. This compelling story is engaging from the first page. A brilliant debut’

Molly Gartland


‘Satisfyingly suspenseful. It may tackle a tough page of history but this story is told with a lightness and humour that make it a page-turning pleasure to read’


‘The past and the present are weaved delicately together in this exceptionally accomplished debut novel, an impactful, life-affirming tale that delves into the depths of humanity both good and bad’

Buzz Magazine

‘What a debut novel! Charity is about guilt, justice and revenge, deceit and dark secrets, family and betrayal. Relationships are not always as they seem, the psychological menace is subtly introduced and there is a slow reveal. Very successful and highly readable’

Yorkshire Times

‘I was totally immersed very early on. Vivid, shocking, original, engaging… A page-turning, thriller-esque read with great characters and a heart-wrenching story at its centre that had me guessing right to the end. Strongly recommended’

Babbage and Sweetcorn

‘A wonderful novel not to be missed. A stunning story that perfectly blends fact and fiction, it’s subtle, sinister and splendid. With payday weekend approaching, I recommend you blow your book budget and add this incredible, intriguing, imaginative and insightful book to your collection’

The Fallen Librarian

‘Three women imprisoned. One in a detention camp. One in her mind. One by her guilt. If you enjoy historical fiction with a menacing tone and unsavoury characters, give this book a try’

The Eclectic Review

‘A beautifully constructed book which layers up past and present events in a careful and artful way until eventually all is revealed. A pacy read, complex and puzzling without being overly confusing, Charity is a powerful historical novel, a situational comedy, a mystery, a ghost story and many other things besides’


‘A beautiful story and truly a fantastic read. Not simply historical fiction, it’s also thrilling and shocking. I didn’t think I’d be rushing to turn the pages when I started reading, but it just doesn’t let you go. I loved this absolutely stunning book’

Jera’s Jamboree

‘It’s hard to believe this is Madeline Dewhurst’s first novel. Once you’re hooked, it will be so hard to put it down. I truly enjoyed this as a thriller, where you’re never sure who is the spider and who is the fly. I also loved the honest way British rule in Kenya is depicted, tainting the lives of everyone involved across time. A brilliant read’

Lotus Writing Therapy

‘An assured and impressive debut that reveals the truth about a shocking period in Britain’s colonial history. A story of guilt, betrayal, manipulation and revenge’

What Cathy Read Next

‘A brilliant book which I devoured in a day. Gripping, fascinating and shocking’

Dr Alice Violett

‘A superb and thought-provoking thriller that provides a perfect blend of domestic drama, historical fiction and suspense’ *****

Ceri’s Lil Blog

‘An absolute delight to read. Not always happy and positive, but really difficult to put down’

PRDG Reads *****

‘Hard to pigeon hole into one genre: historical, literacy fiction and at times psychological thriller. It has so many different elements, it makes you wonder if it will work. But it does! It packs a punch and, for a debut, it’s a powerful start to a career’

Zooloo’s Book Diary

‘An impressive debut novel with layers you peel back a page at a time, Charity will keep you engaged right to the end’

Laura Liz Buckley

‘I wasn't sure about this book but I’m thrilled that I kept going. I recommend you give Charity a read. I promise it’s worth it’

My Bookish Bliss


‘In researching Charity I loved finding out about the tradition of storytelling and the fact that women are usually the storytellers in rural Kenya…’ Madeline writes for Female First.

‘I’d read an article about a scheme where older people who didn’t want to go into care homes would be matched with someone who couldn’t afford London rent…’ Madeline tells novelist Julia Barrett about the genesis of Charity.


Madeline Dewhurst

Madeline Dewhurst studied English at Queen’s University Belfast and went on to complete an MA in Research and a PhD at Queen Mary, University of London. She also has an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway.  She is an academic in English and Creative Writing at the Open University.

Her previous writing includes fiction, journalism and drama. Charity, which was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award, is her first novel.

She now lives in Kent.

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