Emily Spurr’s debut A Million Things (Text Publishing 2021) is a joy to read, crafted with the skill of a much more assured and experienced writer and delivering a story that is full of love, grief, friendship, resilience and humour. This novel will break your heart in the first few pages and then spend the remaining chapters putting it together again.

The story is narrated by 10-year-old Rae, a feisty, tough, enterprising girl with a clear and distinctive voice and personality, written much as author Sofie Laguna presents her child protagonists. Rae’s always had a rough life but it gets much worse when her mother is suddenly gone. Now it’s just Rae and her beloved dog, Splinter. Rae is smart enough to know she needs to fly under the radar if she’s to protect the secret that could tear her world apart. She buys groceries, keeps the lawn tidy, arrives at school on time and well-presented. And at first, nobody is suspicious. But her elderly next-door neighbour, Lettie, is not fooled by the young girl’s obvious desire to keep an emotional and physical distance. And while she wants to help, Lettie has her own secrets and problems that don’t want her bringing unwanted attention to her own door, either.

After a rocky start, the two join forces to protect themselves from the prying eyes of other neighbours in the street, even while neither knows exactly what the other is hiding.

A Million Things is written in simple prose, much of it authentic dialogue that carries the narrative through the main character’s words and thoughts. If I had to use two words to sum up this book, they would be dignity and compassion. The story encourages the reader to think about both these aspects by showing us the individual plights of Rae and Lettie, and as we learn more about each of them, our hearts are opened to situations and challenges that we may (hopefully) never confront in real life, but that are real difficulties and struggles facing others, dark secrets that may not be visible but stay hidden behind closed doors.

The smart and ebullient Rae, and her gradual developing friendship with the cynical and secretive Lettie, provide a story of optimism, resilience and hope, and these characters will stay with you long after the last page.

I can’t wait to read Spurr’s recently published second novel, Beatrice and Fred.