Mum was fond of Margaret Forster, and I also really enjoy her writing – she drills right down into the minutiae of ordinary lives, and, being a British rather than an American author like Anne Tyler, who does the same thing extremely well, she possibly has more relevance for me as a Brit – there is a comforting familiarity about the landscapes, the mentions of bus and train travel, the cups of tea.
Mum read this first in Crete in 1996, on her regular May half term spree with my sister and some close female friends – an inflatable for the pool and bottles of gin were obligatory, as were several carefully chosen books for Mum, and my sister recalls that it always coincided with the end of the Chelsea Flower Show and Victoria Station was full of bods carting heaps of foliage around! I was living in Australia at the time and suffered pangs of envy every year, wishing I could go too – I still use and treasure a glazed earthenware platter Mum sent me one year from there because I couldn’t be with them!
To the book itself. I found this an incredibly confronting, and to be completely honest, a really rather disturbing read. Set in Cumbria, the two central characters, Harriet and Sheila, are both struggling with different aspects of the same dreadful event – Harriet’s son, Joe, has been brutally attacked by Sheila’s grandson, Leo, who was raised by her and her husband, Alan, from the age of three after their daughter died in Africa.
Particularly poignant in light of recent events is the fact that Leo is mixed race – his father, killed in the same accident as his mother, Sheila’s daughter, was black. It is desperately sad that this is still such an issue now as it was back in 1994, when this was first published.
From the back cover of the book – ‘The attack on fifteen year old Joe Kennedy was particularly squalid and vicious. Sheila Armstrong’s grandson Leo, usually a quiet, well-behaved boy, was found holding a knife. Harriet Kennedy cannot cope with her son’s continuing pain; Sheila cannot bear the lasting guilt. In a powerful and moving tale of suffering and forgiveness, the two women confront the complex range of emotions that motherhood entails.’
For me, Sheila especially was the character who really came alive as the novel unfolded – dealing with her erratic and autocratic father, her mild mannered husband, and the emptiness left by losing first her only child, and then her grandson too, who has been her child as well. There is a wonderful scene where she finds herself sitting in Joe’s bedroom, which had been her daughter Pat’s previously, all alone. Very moving.
As always, if you would like to read this very powerful book, just drop me a message either here or through the Facebook or Instagram pages, and I will happily gift it forward to you with love from Mum and I.