As with a number of books I have reviewed recently (Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward, A Visit from the Goon Squad) by Jennifer Egan), this book is constructed from interlinked snapshots going backwards and forwards in time. I have suggested before that this has the advantage that you can 'head hop' and present multiple perspectives and that you can keep the reader's attention by manipulating the order in which you present information but the disadvantages of making the narrative a little more confusing and potentially multiplying characters. This book avoids the latter trap by restricting the main characters to the husband, the wife and the four children, although the sister creeps in towards the end. Thematically the book is brought together by prefacing each of the sections with notes for one of the artist's creations, as if the stories are triggered in a retrospective exhibition.
Rachel Kelly is a painter living in Newlyn, West Cornwall. Early in the book she dies. The stories then explore her fractured family: husband Anthony, a Quaker (as they all are; I don't think I've ever read fiction involving Quakers before), eldest son Garfield, a married ex-lawyer, gay son Hedley, estranged daughter Morwenna who has disappeared, and dead son Petroc. Infusing the whole book is Rachel's bipolar syndrome which means that she lurches from high creativity to desperate depression (especially post-natally); this has distorted family relationships. In addition, she has kept secrets from all of them and the reader learns about these as the book progresses.
The question that keeps the story captivating to the end is: why did Petroc die? But all of the characters are fascinating and beautifully drawn: they are utterly real and the depiction of family life is perfectly presented.
Some of my favourite moments: (page numbers refer to the Harper Perennial paperback)
- "She listened to his breathing and heard it still had the full depth of sleep upon it." (p 2)
- "The gallery owner ... had so many piercings one could hear them click on the receiver during her phone calls." (p 8)
- "It was one of the wonders of the beach ... Some intense heat, was it, or violent tumult within the earth there had brought forth stone of every shade? Garfield had once tried to catalogue them. Like some lost soul in the Greek underworld, he had felt compelled to sort them into black, white, white and black, grey and pink, grey with white streaks and bronzy yellow. The variety had defeated him as much as the lack of time between tides." (p 90)
- "She had three children by three different men and was a notorious slapper in both senses." (p 107)
- "He went to art school in Falmouth where he was quiet but fairly popular and continued to drift in the upper half of the underachievers." (p 157)
- "Perhaps it was that she was the best Quaker of them all, striving to create the fewest ripples as she moved through life." (p 161)
- "Garfield thought she was mad. A lot of people did. Largely this was because their idea of sanity was so enmeshed with property; economic and social stability with its mental equivalent." (p 259)
- "If a blade of grass was a tree to an ant, what must a tree be or a whole lawn? Perhaps, he thought, they simply blanked out such vastnesses and, having no conception of their own insignificance, could thus cope with life and even be happy? Perhaps the trick was to aspire backwards, to the blessed narrowness of a baby's pram-bound outlook and the more you saw, the less happy you could hope to be?" (p 307)
- "If you saved your anger rather than speaking it, it had a way of evaporating like smoke, leaving just a faint smell where before there had been flames." (p 313)
- "They hadn't kissed much earlier, which was a relief because ... it struck him as the most intimate thing ... The rest was intimate too, naturally, but it was limbs and body parts whereas mouths were sort of where your personality came out." (p 360)
A super book: engaging and absorbing but also wise.
January 2021; 374 pages
|This review was written by |
the author of Motherdarling
Patrick Gale also wrote Kansas in August
Other books in this blog about artists include: