Clever Lucy Caldwell, who writes both plays and novels and manages to win prizes for both, has just published this, her third novel. I've read the other two, and reviewed the second, The Meeting Point, a couple of years ago. Both were impressive and enjoyable, but this one I found absolutely unputdownable -- I started it as soon as it popped into the mailbox and finished it by the next day.
This is the story of Lara Moorhouse, who also narrates the novel. A woman in her late thirties, not happy with her life, she is looking back to her childhood with a good deal of grief and anger. Until she was twelve, she had accepted the absences of her plastic surgeon father Patrick, who only visited the family in London once every couple of weeks since his job kept him in Belfast. Then a sudden revelation on a disastrous holiday in Spain made her understand the truth. Lara, her brother Alfie, and their mother Jane were Patrick's second family, his first being his legal wife and two children in Belfast. Somehow Patrick has succeeded in keeping this secret double life going, but, after he is killed in a helicopter crash, the truth comes out, and Jane and the children are forced to leave their comfortable flat and move to grubby and unattractive lodgings in the back streets of Fulham. Lara is furious and incomprehending about how her parents made their choices, but her attempt to get her dying mother to talk about it has failed completely.
The novel, then, is about coming to terms with all this, something Lara has never been able to do. And she does it, in the end, by writing about it. In the early chapters we learn that, as part of her job as a carer, she has been attending, though not participating in, a creative writing class, and eventually she decides to write the story of it all from her mother's point of view. In doing so, though she realises that Perhaps it didn't happen like any of that at all. It probably didn't, she also feels some kind of reconciliation: I understand how it could have, now that I've tried it.
So, this is also a story about writing, its difficulties and its rewards. We see Lara's early struggles with how to structure her story:
I'm getting ahead of myself, I know, jumbling things up again. I do intend to come to things properly, in their own time, in at least approximately the right order. It's harder to tell a story, though, than you'd think. As I said earlier, lives aren't orderly, and nor is memory: the mind doesn't work like that. We make it so, when we narrate things -- setting them in straight lines and in context -- whereas in reality things are all mixed up, and you feel several things, even things that contradict each other, or that happened at separate times, or that aren't on the surface even related, all at once.
and it is only when she steps outside her attempts to make sense of her own life and puts herself into her fictional mother's fictional shoes that she's able to get a clear perspective.
The whole premise of this story is one that I found particularly fascinating. We are quite used to reading of the pains and pleasures of being a mistress -- the jealousy, the loneliness, the self-deception, but also the excitement and the knowledge or at least the hope that you have something that the wife does not have. But when children enter the equation you are in a whole other ballgame. In fact this is a surprisingly common state of affairs, and pops up in the press fairly frequently. Lucy Caldwell was apparently inspired by a documentary about the architect Louis Khan, who actually had three families -- the film, My Architect: A Son's Journey, was made by one of his 'secret' children. All very interesting.
I interviewed Lucy Caldwell in 2011, so if you'd like to know more about her and her writing, you can find that here. But better yet, get yourself a copy of this novel and prepare for a really enjoyable read.