Everything happens for a reason
A debut novel about grief, friendship and our longing for life to make sense.
Loosely based on my own story of grief and life after baby loss.
Everything Happens for a Reason, published by Orenda Books, is available wherever you buy your books, including Bookshop.org, Waterstones, The Guardian Bookshop and Amazon.
The audiobook is on Audible.
Right now, you can buy the EBook and Paperback at a special sale price on Orenda's website.
Click MORE for the opening pages
If you missed our Online Launch, and want to hear more about how I wrote my book and how Louise Beech and Helga Flatland wrote theirs, you can watch it back here:
Everything Happens for a Reason - A Trailer
Thank you to Cole Sullivan at Orenda Books for this trailer.
Everything Happens for a Reason is my first novel.
I used to be a journalist and columnist at the Guardian and Observer, and I started my career as a Reuters correspondent in Berlin and London.
Praise for Everything Happens for a Reason
“I loved this book from start to finish. Yes I cried, but I laughed too."
Julia Hobsbawm, author of the bestselling and award-winning book The Simplicity Principle
"Allen masterfully balances tragedy and humour in this vital story about making sense of the profoundly nonsensical - the death of a baby."
Julia Bueno UKCP reg - author of The Brink of Being - talking about miscarriage
Everything happens for a reason
What do you call maternity leave without maternity? Seriously, what am I supposed to call it? What’s the point of me?
Rachel was like every other mother in Clapham: She’d read the books, bought the best buggy, packed the hospital bag. Then her son was stillborn.
She knows she’s to blame and when someone tells her “everything happens for a reason”, the words consume her. One reason stands out: Last summer, Rachel stopped a stranger from jumping in front of a train. Saving his life cost the life of her son. She must find him.
Told in emails, Everything Happens for a Reason follows Rachel as she tries to make sense of her son’s sudden death, her husband’s silence and of her life as a mother without a child. It also features dogs, gerbils and a little girl called Josephine who shares Rachel’s love of palindromes.
Fri 17/2, 09:15
Subject: What now?
I know what’s going to happen. You see it too. I’m colouring in too hard, over and over the same patch and the paper’s falling apart.
I go round and round that day, the night, and the morning. I reach the end, go back to the start, do it four times, five, more. It takes hours, and sometimes minutes, depends what you include. I take different starting points – here, the taxi, the room – but I always go to the end. Sometimes a detail emerges, like that toddler pressing all the buttons in the lift and how we went down before we went up. It doesn’t help. I can’t make myself believe it, I don’t want to believe it. It doesn’t make sense.
They get that too. Everyone – well not everyone. Most of them. They call (I don’t pick up), they text to say how bad they feel for me, how sorry, how awful it must be. You know, telling me what I should feel but at the same time careful to say they can’t imagine how I feel. All that energy poured into imagining something that they don’t want to be able to imagine or don’t want to tell me they can imagine or at least they imagine I don’t want them to imagine or to imagine them imagining. See? I’m going fucking mad here.
Hang on, the door’s about to go. Van’s stopping on the double yellows, it’ll be for me.
Mon 20/2, 18:38
Sorry, gone longer than I meant.
If you’re reading these, you’ll be wondering what I’ve been up to. I have that effect on people. Will from Continuity called last week, asked, “What do you do all day?” I told him laundry – which is true. No-one tells you how helpful sadness is for staying on top of housework. I have a system, socks in one load, hang them in their pairs, T-shirts in another, iron while damp. It’s bad for the polar bears, but they’d understand. Two hours too late, I came up with a better line for Will. I’ll have it to hand next time: “All those little jobs I’ve been meaning to do for years.” If pressed, I’ll say, “Gutters, the loft, sorting photos.” They’ll know I’m busy and productive and everyone will be happy.
But because it’s you, I can tell you I haven’t started on the gutters (too wet). The loft is not something I can do on my own and the photos would set me back months – there are 10,543 and each photo costs me an average four minutes’ pre-occupation (“That row about that driver”; “Never again dungarees”; “Did we know that’s the happiest we’d ever be?”)
What do I do? The last few days have just gone. But I can’t say what with, apart from a socks and pants cycle.
I can tell you how it started though. With an invasion.
I was right, the florist van was for me. Jean and Tim, my mother’s friends. You don’t know them.
I was still behind the front door, picking out bits of rosemary added by some hipster florist, when the letterbox clattered open. He’s a light-footed creep, that postman.
To be fair, the post’s helpful. It gives the day shape. Washing machine on, coffee, post, empty machine, hang, iron. Routine’s important.
If you were into that kind of thing, you could use the post to measure how much time has passed. At the start, it was almost all cards. Now, nearly three weeks on – two weeks and five days – the cards are thinning out. We’re back to bills and bank statements. Except today, along with an insurance renewal for Lester and something from the taxman, sorry, tax person, there was a card. That’s what it looked like at least. I won’t bore you with what a Trojan horse is, but that’s what it was. Innocuous magnolia envelope, murderous contents.
I pieced together the Bristol postmark and the handwriting – biro, bulges on the a’s, b’s and d’s like an elephant had sat on them. Liz.
Liz is on the you’ve-left-it-far-too-long list, along with cousin Jools, two women in Outreach and Vic from primary school.
I’m not unreasonable. I know some people were on holiday, or out of stamps. Some late arrivals have made it off the too-long list. But the deadline’s passed for the rest. Each day they stayed silent, they made you smaller.
I stare at Liz’s magnolia clad appeal for clemency lying on the table. The kitchen table. I stopped to make coffee.
I should have known. Why expect maturity from someone who dots her i’s with a daisy.
You can tell I’m stalling. I might as well tell you. Explains the three-day silence. And like I said, no-one likes a long silence.
I tear the envelope – easily, it’s cheap paper. Inside is a single postcard.
And this is the stupid bit, I pull it out without thinking. I drop it. It lands face up on the table and it’s too late to look away. Its glassy little eyes stare up at me.
Who the fuck sends a picture of a newborn baby to a grieving mother?
Mon 20/2, 19:20
Didn’t mean to leave you with that. He came in, with daffodils, and he doesn’t know about this. You know who. But I’m not going to give him that name. There’s no value in spelling this out – you of all people should see that. Let’s just call him E.
I’ve put him a chicken tikka in. I ate earlier. Routine.
People underestimate the power of structure. You watch them making up dinner on the fly or setting off without checking the trains, packing the day of a flight. Take Callum in Creativity, aka Mr Sorry-it’s-all-I’ve-got-in. Started with him serving up Bolognese with rice, then he’s eating cereal with apple juice and Sally walks out when he brings her a coffee with yoghurt stirred in. Next comes the mental breakdown and they think you need a Harley Street head doctor to work it out.
I’ve made a plan for us. It’s a simple one, two strands: I tell you what I’ve been up to and I give you some pointers on what you should be up to. It’s amazing how many charts there are, targets, timelines, all sorts. Like now, for instance, you should be able to recognise me.
Mon 20/2, 21:47
E’s gone to bed early. I’m waiting to take biscuits out of the oven, ginger and vanilla. No, not together. Two trays, one vanilla, one ginger, because I’m becoming someone who doesn’t know what they think or want.
The daffodils started it. “But they’re your favourites,” says E.
The ones outside our hospital window were early, mixed in with snowdrops. My mother says the same every year when they appear, “Start of new starts” and she brings out her three daffodil tea towels, puts away the primrose ones. Bluebells come next.
They’ll be gone by the time we go back for the post-mortem.
Tues 21/2, 11:54
Subject: Before-and-after Markers
E called and said I have to remember to eat, so I went to the deli on the edge of the common, the one with rocky road.
It’s when I see the sign – that U shaped like a cup – that I feel it. Like being lighter, a sort of ease. If you want an image, there’s this advert for incontinence pads (nappies for grown-ups). A sixty-something woman running along a beach behind a dalmatian like neither of them will ever tire.
For a minute, that’s what it was like. Because the last time I walked up that road, waited at that crossing and walked in to order a decaf skinny latte, you were with me. I knew where I was going and I would never tire.
I left without ordering because now we’re here. I could do that walk again and again, I could use that same non-biological washing powder and put on the same playlist – a mix of Mozart and Miles Davis compiled for your benefit – but any illusion of before will be just that. It’s not the same walk anyway, the trees are full of white blossom. Can you see them?
Everything’s segmented by these moments that I’ll call before-and-after markers. The hospital is one. The markers fall, splay themselves out on your timeline like a body across a train track, and nothing is the same. There’s no crossing back over a marker. Or the only going back is the cruel kind like this morning, a glimpse on a walk to a coffee shop.
And they bring on physical symptoms. Not just the avoiding tactics you’d expect: the deli, medical dramas, E. But symptoms inside me.
Take this one. I call it phrasal retentiveness. It’s like someone built a library in my head and I now store away every trite phrase, every text message, every ad slogan. (The incontinence one, by the way, is: “Laugh like everyone’s watching.” Which comes from, “Dance like nobody’s watching”, which in my brain has turned into, “Load the dishwasher like nobody’s watching”, because there are upsides to being alone.)
It’s all exacerbated by the fact that in the after, everyone only ever speaks to me in old borrowed phrases, scared to improvise. It’s all “deepest sympathy”, “thoughts and prayers” and “anything you need”.
I hear them once and they are there forever, stuck on repeat and word perfect. Sounds useful, doesn’t it? No doubt a career in the intelligence services beckons. But for now, the phrases are all I have for company and they’re crap at it.
You need examples, don’t you?
We’ll start with Bristol Liz. Yes, the glassy eyed little creature on the card was hers. Did she even tell me she was pregnant?
Once I was breathing again, I turned his face away. On the other side, she and Tom were delighted to announce the arrival of their predictably named little boy, Max. Italics proclaimed “our little family has gotten [sic] eight pounds heavier”. She’d had them sent from home.
At the foot of the card, the elated new mother had managed to scrawl: “Hey, Hope you’re well, Liz xxx”
Hope you’re well. Really? How do you think I am? Never better, so well I’m running a marathon in memory of basic fucking manners.
To be fair, Liz almost certainly does hope I’m well. Everyone does. Not because they particularly care, they just want life to resume, or never to be disrupted in the first place. In the world of baby showers and families putting on eight pounds, there’s no place for our story.
Stupid phrasal retentiveness. “Hey, hope you’re well” is unstoppable. Sometimes I hear it in her transatlantic squawk, sometimes my voice and sometimes the Bristol accent of a gentrified cider farmer drawing out the you’rrre.
This is how it will be now. Haunted by other people’s clumsy words. Liz’s, “Hey, hope you’re well” and the likes of, “When will you try again?” and, “At least he didn’t suffer.” Sorry, you didn’t need to hear that one.
Tues 21/2, 15:57
E’s going to be late, “lots to catch up on”. Catch up from what? He never stopped working. Bad timing, big campaign, he said. Shouty Americans keep calling in the middle of our night. He puts them on speakerphone to make me laugh. It’s all “sunset the old branding”, “hit kids hard with this”, “those drones won’t launch themselves.”
He’ll stay late, go on for a quick drink, then another. “Come and join us,” he said on the phone.
“They don’t want me in the way,” I said.
“They’d love to see you.”
“Another time,” I said. “Don’t rush back. It’ll do you good.”
Don’t blame yourself, he was like this before, says it’s part of the job, “the industry”. You’re the excuse to take it to extremes. The excuse he can’t talk about. And if he were here, what would I say to him? After what I did to us.
Everything Happens for a Reason is my first novel. I used to be a journalist and columnist at the Guardian and Observer, and I started my career as a Reuters correspondent in Berlin and London.
The events in Everything Happens for a Reason are fiction, but the premise is loosely autobiographical. Our son, Finn, was stillborn in 2010, and Rachel’s experience of grief and being on maternity leave without a baby is based on mine. And yes, someone did say to me “Everything happens for a reason”.
I grew up in Warwickshire and now live in South London with my husband, children, dog, cat and stick insects.
When I am not writing or walking children and dogs, I love baking, playing the piano, reading news and wishing I had written other people’s brilliant novels. During the pandemic, I have discovered sewing and have got carried away making masks and matching pet accessories - usually featuring the animals from my book (a beagle, a sausage dog, a toucan named Tooken).
I waste too much time meandering on the web but put that to some use when I appeared on the TV show Pointless with my brother Nic.
I love books by A M Homes, Michael Frayn, Siri Hustvedt, Sarah Winman, Maria Semple and George Orwell. I don’t think I will ever get tired of re-watching The West Wing, The Blues Brothers or Back to the Future. To peruse my funny little mix of recent reads, and to see what I read while writing my book, check out my Bookshop.org page.
I love Christmas – the best baking season – and over the last few years, I’ve written children’s books of 25 chapters each to fill my children’s advent calendars. They tell the story of Bob Whitebeard, a man in hiding at a tumbledown hotel on the south coast of England, and his band of resentful elves.
I am represented by Caroline Hardman at the literary agency Hardman & Swainson and my publisher is Orenda Books. You can get in touch with me directly by using the form below.
Praise for Everything Happens for a Reason
"A beautiful debut that is sad, quirky and at times very funny."
Madeleine Black, Speaker, Podcaster, Activist, Author of Unbroken
"Allen’s debut is simultaneously devastating and hilarious. It takes courage to bring out the humour in heartbreak and Allen has courage in spades."
Clare Allan, author of Poppy Shakespeare and co-founder of Finish Your Novel
"The perfect mix of clever, funny & intensely moving."
Cari Rosen, author of The Secret Diary of a New Mum (Aged 43 1/4)
"Funny. Profoundly sad. Clever. Just loved it."
Louise Beech, author of How to be Brave and This Is How We Are Human (out in June)
"Allen writes with a dry humour mixed with wit and acute observation. And then sometimes she will put in a line that is so honest it takes your breath away as you contemplate the scale of grief she is dealing with."
"A portrait of a woman in the midst of profound grief that is raw, truthful and immensely powerful but which makes you laugh even as you cry and which ultimately leaves you with hope."
Book reviewer Mary Picken at Live and Deadly
"Heartrending, honest and humourous; I've never read anything like it before. So thought-provoking and poignant, it's a completely wonderful debut and highly recommended reading."
Book blogger Michelle Ryles on thebookmagnet.co.uk
"A much-needed novel with Stillbirth as its Central Theme… EHFAR is quite simply a triumph."
"It is witty. Wonderfully and acceptably so... In fact, the story (brilliantly told in email form) calls for this specific brand of dry humour. This is what makes the poignant bits sharper. It makes the heartbreaking bits hit home harder. It makes everything flow. Therein lies the beauty."
Isabella May, author of The Chocolate Box and the forthcoming Bubblegum and Blazers
"Yes, it’s heartbreaking in places – how can the death of a baby not be heartbreaking? But the book is also funny, warm, and uplifting, full of vividly drawn and immensely likeable characters, not only the protagonist, Rachel, but also Josephine and her mum, Lola, both of whom I loved."
Susan Elliot Wright, author of The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood
"I was quite blown away by this wonderful debut... It’s very different, incredibly powerful, intense and emotional – but also a sheer joy to read, and entirely unforgettable."
Book reviewer Anne Williams on Being Anne
“A captivating insight into life after loss. Providing a different, yet incredibly honest, perspective of a mother’s journey. Insightful, witty & humbling.”
“It’s a book everyone should read - if anyone finds themselves in a position where their close friend or relative faces similar loss, reading this book will help them support that person better.”
Jenny Mison, Midwife & Founder of @thebirthingbible
"This is a heart-wrenching, soul-lifting read about loss and redemption in unlikely places that grips from start to finish..."
"The writing is superb: so raw in places, but also funny, and the author's personal experience of this tragedy gives you an insight into a horror no one can imagine unless they have experienced it themselves."
Eve Smith, author of The Waiting Rooms
A LoveReading Debut of the Month and Star Book, its reviewer Liz Robinson called Everything Happens for a Reason, "Quirky yet insightful, bright yet wistful, amusing yet emotional".
The Reading Closet called it "bittersweet and life-affirming".
Thank you to all who have read and reviewed Everything Happens for a Reason so far and to all who have given me and the book so much support.
And thank you to my brilliant brother Nic Allen for setting up this site.