The Testament of Vida Tremayne, by Sarah Vincent, tells the story of a faded writer and a supposed fan who inveigles herself into Vida’s life to offer practical care and help reignite her stalled creativity. It also explores the sometimes difficult relationship between a mother and daughter, the grudges that linger from childhood.
Vida’s daughter, Dory, felt sidelined by her mother’s writing, resentful that their family life revolved around Vida’s need for peace and solitude in order to work. She believes that a character in Vida’s best selling novel – a spoiled, selfish, nasty piece of work with few redeeming features – is based on her.
Dory runs a successful property search business in London. She lives alone having recently separated from her boyfriend who struggled to accept that she would always put her business first.
The story opens with Dory returning to her mother’s lonely cottage on the Shropshire-Welsh border, “a no-man’s land of misty horizons fit only for sheep.” Vida called it the Gingerbread Cottage as it reminded her of the setting of her prize winning novel and was bought with the proceeds from this book.
That was before, when Vida lived with her family and sought a peaceful sanctuary in which to write. Now her daughter has moved away, establishing herself in the city. Last year Vida’s husband left her to move to France with his new partner. Vida has written nothing of note since.
It is a cold and desolate January. Vida lies catatonic in a hospital. Worried about her mother Dory had reluctantly travelled to the cottage and found Vida on the floor of the kitchen surrounded by blood and feathers. She has no idea what caused this breakdown. The doctors cannot yet say how likely it is that Vida will ever recover.
Dory enters the cold, damp cottage and finds it occupied by a stranger, an earth mother type who introduces herself as Rhiannon Townsend. She tells Dory that she is a friend of Vida’s who has been staying to help out. Shocked and upset by recent events Dory accepts Rhiannon’s presence, pleased that her mother had a friend but discomfited by how at home this unexpected guest appears to be.
Dory struggles with her desire to return to the business she has worked so hard to build in London and her concern for her mother’s health. Rhiannon encourages Dory to leave if she wishes, assuring her that she will care for Vida as she has been doing for the past three months. Each solicitude contains an undercurrent of criticism, each criticism hitting Dory’s suppressed guilt that she, the daughter, should have been the one to offer her mother care.
Through Vida’s diary the reader is taken back three months to the circumstances under which Rhiannon entered her life. She introduced herself as an avid fan at a time when Vida had few taking notice of her books. Insidious manipulations masked by flattery and concern hone in on Vida’s loneliness, on every failing she feels but tries to hide from the world.
The power play between the women is revealed gradually. The rooms in the cottage are as seats around the table of a king, occupation of the throne shifting and unclear. As rain and snow beat down outside, the isolation of each is palpable.
This is a tale where the journey is as intriguing as the denouement. The author lays bare the recognisable human weaknesses of Vida and Dory: their selfishness at odds with their desire to be better; their yearning for appreciation; the oft conflicting bonds of friendship and blood.
As the tension builds and Rhiannon’s motivations are revealed I wondered who would survive. Her ability to hide behind polite society’s unwillingness to probe too deeply into another’s life disturbs. The twists at the end were darkly perfect.
The layers of plot, perceptiveness and character development make this a difficult book to slot into a genre. It is a psychological thriller but so much more. As a mother and a daughter I felt uncomfortable with much of what was explored. It gets under the skin; it is powerful writing.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.