A nice fantasy, but don’t give up the day job
The first novel by Kirsty Wark, the BBC Newsnight presenter, is surprisingly unambitious ‘women’s fiction’
Photograph: Emilie Sandy/BBC
The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle
If a novel has a unique selling point, this novel’s must be basic curiosity. What kind of novel has Kirsty Wark written? Wark is the broadcaster who for many years has been a presenter on arguably the most thoughtful and wide-ranging news programme on television, the BBC’s Newsnight. With her rather ingenuous manner she may not be the most heavyweight of its presenters, but we have seen her untangle the knots of international politics and hold her own with prime ministers and sundry personages of all kinds.
Those of us who watch Newsnight, or those arts programmes she also regularly presents, will be curious to know what Wark is like behind the professional facade. Will her book be brainy and probing and incisive, like herself? And what is she interested in besides the issues of the day? The novel will surely tell. Because hardly anything is as revelatory of another’s secret self and how they view the world as the novel they choose to write. It’s one of the reasons among several why we like to read novels.
What Wark has chosen to write is a surprisingly unambitious work. This is a nice and unchallenging novel content to remain within the cosy confines, stylistically and intellectually, of the genre unfairly and wrongly described as women’s fiction, as if this is the only kind that all women want to read or write.
Not being an expert on “women’s fiction”, I can’t say whether The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle is a good or bad example of the genre. What I can say is that it’s certainly an easy read if that’s what you want. That the story will carry you along and the characters are believable and not uninteresting. And that it’s undemanding and should send you to sleep in jig time if this, too, is what you’re after.
The plot is the stuff of fantasy, but a reassuringly down-to-earth and probably common fantasy. A woman in Edinburgh receives a letter from a solicitor to say she has been left a house by a woman she never knew. The house, Homelea, is on the Isle of Arran. Sadly, the legatee, Anna, has early-onset dementia, so it is her thirtysomething daughter, Martha, a journalist, who, having power of attorney, goes to Arran to claim her inheritance.
Martha’s trips to Arran from Edinburgh become voyages of discovery. Who was this mysterious nonagenarian Elizabeth Pringle, who has left her house to a stranger? It’s a lovely house, straight from the pages of property porn. All its period features are, as they say, intact, and all its period contents, china tea sets, nice bed linen and tasteful paintings by well-known Scottish artists in situ. From her house alone we can tell that Miss Pringle was a dream of a woman and that we’re unlikely to be disillusioned.
Like several of the other characters, she was also an enthusiastic gardener. For some reason an enthusiasm for ornamental gardening in a novel can be a death knell. But that may be just me.
Why was Elizabeth so taken with Anna, a young woman she glimpsed only a few times, in days long past, wheeling a pram or cycling the roads of the island when she came on holidays in the summer? Why, after years of a lonely and reclusive life, does she suddenly form close friendships with two younger men, Saul and Niall? Saul is a sexy Buddhist monk who lives in community but often strays from the monkish path into the arms of women. Niall is a gardener, the laconic kind, who lives in a beautiful Mies van der Rohe-inspired house and is obviously a new lover waiting to happen.
For the answer to Martha’s many questions we have Elizabeth’s testimony, which the novel reveals in parallel with Martha’s story. Martha is at a crossroads in her life. She is anguished by her mother’s illness, saddened by her younger sister’s antagonism, bored with journalism and angry with her ex-lover.
Miss Pringle’s legacy couldn’t have come at a better time. The house will be a project for her. And, apart from having the mystery of her benefactor to solve, Arran offers new friends, such as Catriona, the nice hotelier – and, of course, Niall – to get to know.
The story meanders down familiar byways, helped along with devices such as the keys Martha finds in a secret drawer, a hidden door and a trunk in the attic. The secret tragedy when it’s revealed does not change our view of Elizabeth Pringle’s niceness. She is a paragon of niceness. To Saul and Niall she was an inspiration, another aspect of the legacy she bequeaths. Indeed all the characters are nice, and they all get predictably partnered off by the end. Even Anna is partnered, when Catriona finds Bea, an extremely nice Polish woman, to care for her.
Wark knows Arran well, and the island clearly has a place in her heart. It’s obvious, too, that she has got pleasure out of writing this novel and enjoyed working out the plot and tidily packaging up her characters’ lives. And I’m sure there are many readers who won’t care that the pleasure to be got from reading it is disappointingly mild. I suspect she may have thoughts of giving up the day job. But I’m afraid I’d prefer if she didn’t.
Anne Haverty’s novels include The Free and Easy