Bloomsbury. 2015. 294 pp.
ISBN 978 0 4088 6188 2.
The first chapter begins with a woman, Julia, flying a hawk on the Downs. We hear Julia's thoughts, follow her meeting with her lover, Julian, and later share her experience of abuse by her violent husband. But for the next two-thirds of the book, it is Julian and his family who fill the pages.
Julia is absent until the end, but it is her absence that haunts Julian. We do not know exactly what happened between them, only that they had been living together since Julia left her husband, and that they have a small daughter, Mira. Now Julia has left Julian. Mira, too, has gone, although we don't know how or why.
Julian's grief, especially for his daughter, is incapacitating. His feisty and assertive mother and his step-father come to help him, but in chapters that jump back-and-forth in time with Julian's memories, we begin to understand their help is not always as selfless as it seems.
Other kind helpers are Julian's ex girl-friend Katie, now married and with two children of her own, but separated from her husband. And Kurt, an old friend of Julian's, who plays an ambivalent role in his and Julia's lives.
Julia, Julian, and Mira had been living in London, but with the help of his step-father, Julian goes into debt to buy the big country house in which he grew up. Although Julia runs a successful plant-hire business with a girl-friend in London, Julian determines this will be their country paradise—a place for Mira to have the freedom he enjoyed as a boy. Julia commutes several days a week, and Katie steps in to help look after Mira while Julian, a successful author of children's books, writes the novel his publishers are pressuring him to finish. Katie's boys and Mira become close friends.
The situation is precarious but seems to be working until Mira becomes dangerously ill.
Polly Samson writes with great insight about the emotions and stresses parents undergo when their child is critically ill in hospital. It is not these, however, that cause Julia and Julian to part, but something more secret and more disturbing—something not revealed until the the final chapters.
There are complicated connections between all the characters in this book, and what often seems like kindness and support has complicated origins and results. Polly Samson, however, handles all these tangled threads with great skill and subtlety. While describing what seems to be happening, she manages to suggest the underlying wishes and desires driving her characters' behavior, especially that of Julian's mother. And typically, the ending of the book is subtle and satisfying. Not everything is spelled out, there is still much to wonder about, but in a scene where jasmine wreaths leaden glass and vines create double-helix patterns across Julian's desk, the signs are hopeful.
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