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The Chicken Soup Murder

Maria Donovan
Publication Date: 
Saturday, September 23, 2017
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Shortlisted for the Rubery Book Award, Fiction Category 2018

‘This is a great story, told with sensitivity, and a first class eye for comedy. A memorable read.’ – Rubery Book Award

‘Handled with great sensitivity, this has great comedy, exciting developments and very moving moments, right through until the nicely worked solution to the mystery.’ – The Daily Mail

‘The Chicken Soup Murder is a thought provoking, yet gentle heartfelt hug of a tale, and a very lovely read indeed.’ – Love Reading

‘A thoroughly original, startling and very good novel indeed.’ - Fay Weldon

‘A beautifully written debut, with characters to fall in love with.’ – Danny Wallace

‘Fresh, suspenseful and tantalising’ – Christopher Meredith

‘A lovely, warm-hearted novel about love and grief.’ – Francesca Rhydderch

​‘This novel shines in its warm-hearted treatment of grief, written with a light touch and with a deep understanding of what it means to lose someone.’ – Eluned Gramich, New Welsh Review

​‘I was gripped until the very last sentence’ – Frost Magazine

‘Full of humour and written with a big heart’ – Tracy Baines

Maria Donovan’s debut novel, The Chicken Soup Murder, subverts the crime and murder mystery genres in a meditation on bereavement, friendship and the meaning of family. This emotionally involving coming-of-age narrative is told with resilience and humour by eleven-year-old Michael, a thoughtful boy who tests the boundaries of his own behaviour as he carries a burden of knowledge no one else seems willing to share.

Michael’s happy early life in a small seaside town – a cosy world of cricket and football, experiences shared with his best friend Janey and her family – is disrupted by the arrival of a bully, and blasted by visitations from Death: the biggest bully of them all. Within Michael’s own past are unanswered questions: why does he live with his grandmother? Are his parents really in prison? His magical creative thinking lands him in trouble: how reliable is his story and why is he the only one who thinks that a murder has been committed? What can he, a schoolboy about to turn twelve, do about it? Haunted by the injustice of a killing, he takes on the burden of trying to do the right thing: first helping the widowed mother of his best friend,  and then seeking justice for a murdered woman, as he resorts to making trouble in order to get at the truth. As Michael struggles to help himself and the people he cares for to move on, he learns about the acceptance of the facts of natural death – whether unexpected or predictable, caused by illness or accident. He sees what happens to those left behind when a loved one dies and, above all, how to recognise and overcome the stumbling block formed by the deliberate taking of a life to those who are grieving.





Review by Rita E. Gould

Tuesday, July 17, 2018


The Chicken Soup Murder, Maria Donovan’s debut novel, is a moving story about loss and justice. It focuses on a close-knit band of neighbours whose lives are upended by the young deaths of two of their own: first, Janey’s father to cancer and then Irma to “natural causes”. But was Irma’s unexpected death a murder? Michael, her 11-year-old neighbour and the story’s narrator, is stubbornly convinced that Irma’s boyfriend—a police constable, no less—murdered her. No one else, even his Nan, Zene—who worried about Irma after previous electrical mishap occurred following her boyfriend’s DIY project—shares Michael’s suspicions. Although Michael argues she “can’t just have died”, it can happen as his Nan and others point out. Donovan neatly balances Michael’s certainty with adult doubts about his reliability in a manner that leaves readers nonetheless sympathetic to Michael.

But the heart of Donovan’s novel isn’t its mysteries, but in how it truly inhabits the world of the grieving and how it traces the aftermath of these deaths. Irma and Zene’s decision to live life more fully following the loss of Janey’s dad leads Irma to Shawn Bull and his son, George. The perhaps too-aptly-named Bulls become entrenched in Irma’s life, damaging her friendships with her neighbors as she adopts Shawn’s rather less empathetic views. Michael and Janey are instantly recognizable as youths on the cusp of maturity, a triumph on Donovan’s part (her careful characterization even shows how Janey’s year ahead in school makes her less naïve than Michael). Both are caught in this tide of grief even as their lives go ever onward, the seasons marked by sports and school. Michael is perhaps literally haunted by Irma’s loss and is pained that his grief is unacknowledged by the greater community that doesn’t understand he had a closer relationship with Irma than George did. Janey struggles to cope with her dad’s loss and her mother’s resulting deep depression, alternates between parenting her mother and being infuriated with her—and occasionally, Michael as she worries that he’s forgotten her father (he hasn’t). Among the more poignant moments stem from Zene’s counsel to Janey “The league tables of grief. But it’s not a competition, Janey. Nobody wins.” Indeed.

Michael is a remarkable character, a generally sensitive boy whose love for Irma propels him into the awkward role of avenger. But it’s his determination to do right by Irma that raises questions about the lengths to which it’s appropriate to pursue truth or protect loved ones. The degrees in which the novel explores right and wrong here, range from childhood misdemeanors to adults behaving badly, with shades of grey in between. Michael, once bullied by George, in turns is accused of (and occasionally does) torment George. Shawn isn’t above threatening Michael or Zene to protect his son, even after Michael rescues George from certain death. Zene’s decision to keep mum about Michael’s parents and their incarceration (“Best left alone”) proves to be problematic in several ways. Without giving too much away, her decision to do what she “thought was best” leaves her in a vulnerable position because she has kept secrets from her grandson. The Chicken Soup Murder lets us coexist in the sometimes messy lives of the bereaved and wronged. Satisfyingly, it doesn’t have easy resolutions or simple fixes for strained relations. Nonetheless, the novel ends on a hopeful note that things will at least be addressed and may change for the better.

Summary: The Chicken Soup Murder is an engrossing, well-paced novel. An unconventional mystery, it features believable characters whose heartbreak is palpable and who occasionally infuriate us with their choices. Narrator Michael is an engaging and often funny, particularly when he doesn’t get adult references. Much like life, there are no easy fixes but hope persists.

Review by Tracy Gow, DURA

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

“The day before the murder, George Bull tried to poison me with a cheese sandwich.”

With this hook, Maria Donovan opens her debut novel, The Chicken Soup Murder. The narrator is eleven-year-old Michael Davies, battling lactose intolerance alongside the perplexities of impending adolescence in a small coastal town in Dorset. Michael lives with his Nan and liked his life before George Bull and his dad, PC Shawn Bull moved in next door with Nan’s friend, Irma. The cosy arc of pebble-dashed houses was a happy community. In the summer there were barbecues and cricket with his best friend, Janey and in the winter, there was Hallowe’en, bonfire night and fireworks. But Michael’s world is turned upside down when Janey’s dad dies. Janey’s mum crumples under the weight of grief, withdrawing into the safe confines of her dressing gown. Then Irma dies suddenly whilst making chicken soup, and Michael can’t accept that she died of natural causes. He is convinced that he witnessed something strange though the kitchen window and suspects PC Shawn Bull of murdering her. Why else would all the evidence of the soup she’d been making have disappeared?

If the opening line of the novel is reminiscent of Adrian Mole, it is because there is humour to be found amongst its themes of love, loss, family secrets and above all, growing up. Donovan evokes a strong sense of place and time. The novel is set in 2012 and meticulously draws on the sporting events of that year – the Olympics, Andy Murray’s tearful defeat – and the weather, mostly rainy. In a recent interview with Tracy Baines, Donovan said that she’d kept a detailed diary of things that were going on in that year because she wanted her story to feel realistically rooted in time. Throughout the novel, the cricket commentary plays like a radio in the next room and this was particularly important to Donavan because: “I think people notice when they are grieving: this odd sense that everything is carrying on just as before, while for you everything has changed.”

Donovan speaks from experience. She lost her own husband, Mike a couple of years before she began writing The Chicken Soup Murder and in between she had been writing shorter pieces which expressed the way she was feeling. Shapeshifting into the mind of an eleven-year-old boy allowed her to get a fresh perspective on grief, and it works well. Not only is Michael trying to come to terms with his own feelings about death, but he’s also a witness to Janey’s struggles with her bereaved mother and her frustration with trying to do normal things like play at a county football match.

“‘Dad would have taken me.’
Her mum sticks out her chin. ‘But he’s not here, is he?’
‘It’s not very Judy Murray of you, is it, Mum?’
‘I don’t want to see my girl crying because she’s lost.’
Janey walks out. I think she’s crying already.”

Michael’s determination to prove that Irma was murdered drives the narrative and gives Donovan the opportunity to flesh out the Michael character, though not always sympathetically. As the victim of bullying by George, Michael seeks to turn the tables on him at the earliest opportunity and then bullies him back. There are spiky exchanges with his Nan and pangs of jealousy when Janey strikes up a friendship with ‘Golden Boy.’ We are in no doubt that Michael’s intentions are good, but it is credit to Donovan that his reactions and responses feel authentic for a pre-pubescent boy.

The mystery of Irma’s death and the mystery of why Michael lives with his Nan are neatly resolved at the end of the book, and there is a sense that everything will work out in the end. A highly recommended read.

Review by Eluned Gramich, New Welsh Review

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Read the full review on the New Welsh Review website.

... Maria Donovan is already well established as a short story writer, having published a collection with Seren in 2007 and winning various awards for her work, including the Dorset Award in the Bridport Prize 2015. This is her first novel. The jump from short story to novel can be difficult. Some writers, such as the Nobel Prize Winner Alice Munro, have never written a novel, while others such as George Saunders, David Means and Jennifer Egan stuck to the short form for most of their writing lives before trying their hand at a book-length narrative. With The Chicken Soup Murder, Donovan has succeeded in producing a wonderful and confident debut. The story is engrossing, the protagonists both likable and extremely relatable (something which is sometimes missing from recent literary fiction). Nan, for instance, is full of wise sayings (some of which I underlined for future reference) and the novel is peppered with her advice: ‘Nan says, most ordinary people can be amazing in a crisis, but there are no medals for just getting on with your life.’ But ‘getting on with life’ is exactly what makes the most trouble for people. Something Michael has to learn for himself.

Michael is a thoughtful boy, mature for his age. Having been brought up by his Nan and Irma, his speech and thoughts are endearingly womanly at times. Sometimes, his voice is a little too mature, as if he’s intuiting the concerns of the older women around him. Such as when he remarks, ‘[m]aybe it was all the talk about living life while you can – anyway, Irma got a boyfriend.’ It’s unlikely that an eleven-year-old would be interested – or even really aware – of Irma’s motivations, in getting into a relationship late in life. The mask of boyhood slips again when, on visiting his neighbour, Michael observes that ‘[w]e all eat a sandwich while we’re there because Janey’s mum likes to prove she has food in the house.’ But then there is so much good to Donovan’s characters, her empathy and understanding, her brilliant, quick and lively dialogue, that these slippages of young Michael’s voice are quickly forgotten in the pleasures of her storytelling.

As Michael’s ‘sandwich’ comment illustrates, mental illness hovers between the lines of the novel. Donovan’s depiction is subtle and real. Since the story is told from a child’s point of view, symptoms are simply a part of ordinary, day-to-day life. Depression is relayed through not ‘getting out of bed’; anxiety is expressed by ‘the Twitch’ and ‘tapping’. At one point, Michael lies on the ground and finds he’s unable to move. He doesn’t know why: ‘I haven't exactly got a pain or anything.’ Seen from his point of view, and without the medical labels we’re used to, mental illness is freed from the usual baggage, preconceptions and unhelpful stereotyping. Rather, it’s depicted more positively: as phases that come and go in life, depending on the individual and the circumstances. Donovan’s novel quietly pushes that blurred line between grief and depression, melancholy and mental illness. But it does so in a way that avoids sensationalising or becoming overly sentimental: the tone – caught halfway between Michael’s naivety and Nan’s maturity – is genuine and wise.

The murder at the heart of the story finally reveals deeper mysteries. The story widens from Michael’s sheltered existence in the South-West to the city of Cardiff, the Welsh language and an entirely new culture. Having grown up in Dorset and settled in Wales, Donovan bridges these two worlds in her writing, avoiding cliché and stereotypes. This novel shines in its warm-hearted treatment of grief, written with a light touch and with a deep understanding of what it means to lose someone.

Review courtesy of New Welsh Review.

Review by Liz Robinson, Love Reading

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A short, seemingly simple, yet complex and rather wonderful novel about a young boy coming to terms with life, death, and everything in-between. Eleven year old Michael believes that a murder has taken place, and he tells his own story. The first sentence sets the scene with dramatic intensity, and left me with the hint of raised eyebrows, the possibility of a smirk. The tale begins the day before the murder, and background information is gradually filled in, allowing the connection to Michael to grow, to be nurtured. Maria Donovan explores sorrow, confusion, anger, friendship and love, all from the viewpoint of an eleven year old, with such thoughtfulness and compassion. I loved getting to know Michael and his companions, he entered my heart, he made me smile, and occasionally wince. ‘The Chicken Soup Murder’ is a thought provoking, yet gentle heartfelt hug of a tale, and a very lovely read indeed.


Review by Lucy Menon, Buzz Magazine

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

When a book opens with, “The day before the murder, George Bull tried to poison me with a cheese sandwich”, you know you’re onto a winner. Maria Donovan’s novel is definitely one you won’t want to put down. Told from the perspective of Michael, an adolescent, the story charts the disruption of his life – from his best friend’s father dying, to his school bully moving in next door and culminating in the demise of neighbour Irma. Michael is suspicious of George the bully and his father (who now lives with Irma) and believes she has been murdered whilst making him chicken soup. Michael lives with his grandmother and there is a mystery surrounding the absence of his parents. However, after Irma’s death, secrets from the past threaten to surface and Michael’s grandmother must decide what is the best course of action. The story is a moving depiction of loss and grief and the extraordinary ways people deal with the aftermath. After Irma dies, Michael continues to have visions of her lurking under his bed. Despite its sombre subject matter, the book is humorous and the child-narrator is a refreshing voice. Donovan’s well-balanced novel has keen observations of human motivation, carefully-drawn characters and well-executed moments of bathos. With other surprising sub-plots and set against real events from 2012, this story has depth and is a great one for curling up with now the nights are drawing-in, but not necessarily with a mug of soup…


Review by Helen Corton, Random Things Through My Letterbox

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The murder itself is that of Michael’s neighbour and Nan’s best friend Irma, suddenly, one afternoon, while she was making chicken soup. The problem Michael has is that he’s the only one that thinks she was murdered, and the adults in his life are all refusing to listen to his concerns, believing her to have died of natural causes. You follow the characters through to find out what really happened to Irma and how life pans out for everyone in this complex web.

I adored this book. Michael is a loveable character with a lot of problems and throughout the book I was able to be affectionate to his point of view even when I didn’t agree with his actions. His voice tells the story so you are given access to his thinking and motivations. The other characters are strong too and the plot is really well timed, at no point was I struggling to get through it, I just wanted to find out what happens! The ending especially really pays off and I loved the themes of moving into adulthood and how humans cope with grief and loss. I think a great way to sum this book up is to call it ‘subtle’ – there’s a lot going on within the innocence in the text.

One of the strongest themes is about family secrets, and the lies we tell people we love in order to protect them from the truth, how those people react when they find out the truth, on top of feeling betrayed that they have been in the dark all along and lose trust of the secret keepers. Family relationships are deeply complicated and appear over and over again in literature, this family have their own unique issues to work out like all others, I loved finding out what they were.

I’d definitely recommend this book to all; it’s warm and intriguing and took me back to the chaos of adolescence within a great story.


Review by Fanny Blake, The Daily Mail

Friday, October 13, 2017

Written in the voice of 11-year-old Michael, who suspects a murder committed by a neighbour, this novel inevitably evokes Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time.

But it quickly establishes an identity and panache of its own, vividly painting the immediate social world of a prickly, precocious boy brought up by his nan, but with emotional ties to the neighbouring adults and children.

The plot is firmly rooted in its setting (a town close to Dorset’s Jurassic Coast) and time (2012), but the theme of a child’s dawning awareness of the lives of adults, and the beginning of his own transition away from childish things, is universal.

Handled with great sensitivity, this has great comedy, exciting developments and very moving moments, right through until the nicely worked solution to the mystery.

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-4975246/DEBUT-FICTION.html#ixzz4vNHxhkaY

Review by Tracy Baines, Frost Magazine

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Although Maria Donovan has had great success with her short stories this is her first foray into longer fiction – and I dearly hope this debut novel is swiftly followed by another. It has such warmth and humour – which isn’t bad for a story about murder and death.

Michael lives with his nan in a little town near the sea with its magic hills and the three pebbled dashed semis in a long arc. But everything is turned upside down when the Bulls move in next door and Michael’s magical creative thinking lands him in trouble: why is he the only one who thinks a murder has been committed? Can we believe his story?

As Michael struggles to help himself and the people he cares for to move on, he learns about acceptance and grief, and to what happens to those who are left behind when a loved one dies.

Reading the above you might think that this would be a maudlin, fearful book but its not like that at all. Although Donovan explores the many repercussions of death – on family, friends and neighbours, she has a light touch and paints a varied picture of grief as it is, in its everyday shabbiness and unwashed clothes, in the difficulties of holding on and letting go.

The narrator, eleven-year-old Michael, just about to go up to ‘Big School’, leads the reader through the happenings at the three semis in the street where he lives; his own home where he lives with Nan, Irma the next door neighbour and best-friend Janey and her family at the house on the end.

It would do the novel a great injustice to describe it purely as a murder mystery because it is so much more. It is about what makes a family, what holds it together and how friends and neighbours can be family too. How much they become a part of the very fabric of our lives. I was gripped until the very last sentence.

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