When the family secret is another family
Caldwell does not make it easy for herself. Yet the flatter passages work better than the more literary ones, which tend towards stagy cliches highlighting the stylistic and narrative limitations: “A moment later, they were in each other’s arms. Our father was a huge bear of a man, well over six feet tall and broad with it, and our mother was a little bird of a creature. He swamped her – engulfed her – lifted her off her feet with the force of his embrace . . . I rushed back to them, too, sucked in by their force field.”
The shadowy father, a plastic surgeon whose work is divided between Belfast during the Troubles and a Harley Street practice, is evoked as a visitor who walks in and out of the lives of Lara, her mother and Alfie, Lara’s little brother. Father appears loving and mercurial. He is also very busy, as he has a wife and children living with him in Belfast. The reason he is late for that first and only holiday in Spain with Lara and her mother and brother is that he is already there, staying in a hotel farther up the coast with his wife.
Caldwell presents the father not as a hero but as an attractive rogue intent on keeping both families. Her mother, quiet and determined, the most unlikely partner for the dashing doctor, settles in to wait for her lover to leave his wife. He doesn’t. All of this is slowly pieced together by Lara, who realises that the story is not really hers: it is her mother’s. But the dying woman who “didn’t want someone else’s heart in her” remains determined and says little, other than insisting she would do it all the same again.
But this is not really a love story. Instead of writing a novel about a doomed romance as witnessed by a child and reconstructed by a grieving, lonely adult, Lara comes to see that “it wasn’t love, it was desperation and addiction, and a shared guilt, and a need for that guilt”. Lara realises that her mother was never happy; “it was shrivelling her up inside.”
In the absence of art, there is no mistaking a cool intelligence at work here. The most moving image is of Lara’s grandmother, painstakingly dressed in her best clothes, making the long journey from Yorkshire to London with a suitcase of prepared meals for her daughter, Lara’s mother. But the old lady’s efforts and pleas for a rethink are rejected. Lara’s mother, intent on her fate, remains with her married lover.
Caldwell’s prose fails to seduce, and the predictable narrative fades, ending with a quiet sigh of relief. Yet there are sufficient flint and hurts absorbed to render Lara’s journey of discovery convincingly real, if patchily executed.