Our Book Club is formally reconvening in the New Year but in the meantime here is a novel I would highly recommend.
Tolstoy in Anna Karenina says “All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion” and is therefore more interesting.
For ten days in London in the summer of 1976 the tar is melting in the streets, it is the third month of a drought, the temperature has not dropped below 90F and people are becoming a little unhinged. At precisely 6.45 am , Robert Riordan, who has recently retired from the bank, went out just as he has always done for more than 30 years, saying on that particular Thursday morning , “I’ll just go round the corner and get the paper.” Only this time the devoted husband and father of three did not come back.
By teatime Gretta, his wife is panicking. She calls upon her middle child Monica to help, but Monica is too busy with a crisis involving her stepdaughters’ cat. Gretta then calls Michael Francis her eldest, who is in the middle of his own family drama involving two restless children and a wife deeply distracted and immersed in an Open University degree and Gretta cannot phone her youngest Aoife who has run away to New York, because she doesn’t have her number. But soon the three siblings come together to try to figure out what has happened to their father.
What ensues is a richly drawn portrait of a dysfunctional family. Robert Riordan’s disappearance takes place within the first five pages of the novel and the seismic shock waves which this act causes to flow through his next of kin, become the subject matter of the balance of the novel. Tensions are unearthed between Aoife and Monica, Michael Francis and his wife Claire, Monica and her husband, Aoife and Gretta and so on and so forth. Secrets concealed and congealed within the family leak out as the reader becomes drawn in, with O’Farrell slowly and gradually exposing the problems and flaws in each character.
I for one think Gretta is a magnificent creation- garrulous, unthinking, caring, loud, embarrassing , maternal, pathetic, loving, hypocritical, inquisitive- an altogether credible mixture of contradictions. The rest of the family is no less painfully believable and authentically drawn, all having their own secrets. The only son Michael Francis is a history teacher whose marriage is fragile and who has had a secret affair with a fellow teacher. Monica has a difficult marriage to an older man and she seems as though she is waiting to be rescued, her neurosis achingly real. Aoife (my favourite character) is the black sheep of the family, plagued by her own deficiencies, suffering from undiagnosed dyslexia and being functionally illiterate.
O’Farrell does not shy away from complex dynamics and I greatly admire her skill in juggling four separate narrative threads (the disappearance of the father, plus the back stories of the three siblings) without there ever being any confusion. All the hallmarks of a good novel are here, a family with secrets, relatives long since forgotten, a claustrophobic uncomfortable feeling of emotional closeness. For me I find this an accomplished and addictive novel, a powerful, solid book providing the reader with a unique opportunity to inhabit another person’s consciousness for a while, facilitated by the wonderful texture of psychologically realistic fiction. The narrative landscape isn’t flashy, there are no vampires or car chases, the novel’s concerns are internal rather than external and because of this I believe it is a novel well worth seeking out.