Book Review: A Perfect Explanation

“It was the starting that was the joy when no mistakes had been made, when the world was free and open, when nothing was said that needed to be unsaid”

Eleanor Anstruther grew up knowing the family story of how her father, as a boy, was sold by his mother to his aunt for five hundred pounds. These forebears were an aristocratic family whose wealth included large properties in Scotland and London. Children were important as heirs; the family inheritance to be managed and passed on. Although A Perfect Explanation is a work of fiction it was built around facts found in letters, court papers, medical reports and photographs. It offers a fascinating picture of a family bound by gendered tradition, in which truths deemed unpalatable, including parental favouritism, silently festered to the detriment of all.

The tale is told across two timelines – a day in 1964 and the years between the two world wars. The protagonist is Enid Campbell, a society beauty who later eschews company. Although pampered and selfish she regards herself as hard done by. The coldness of parents and their favouring of certain offspring repeat across the three generations featured. Mothers love their sons more than their daughters who are expected to do their duty without unseemly fuss.

Enid is one of three siblings. They were born and raised in the fairy-tale castle of Inveraray in Argyllshire. When her uncle, the ninth Duke of Argyll and husband of Princess Louise, died, Enid’s family had to move to a smaller property on the estate, thereby freeing the castle for her cousin’s occupancy. Enid regarded this as her first lesson in how anything she loved could be taken away. The next lessons were when her beloved brother, her parents’ heir, was killed in the war, and her father, who had always favoured her, died of illness. Enid was left with her domineering mother who she believed preferred her sister, Joan. Enid had married Douglas to spite her mother, an act she was told contributed to her father’s demise. She regretted that Douglas rather than her brother returned from the war.

Enid and Douglas have a son, Fagus, and a daughter, Finetta. Enid struggles with the demands of motherhood and grows to despise her husband while still expecting his support. Their son was born with hydrocephalus but the obvious signs are neither discussed nor treated. The condition makes him clumsy and he suffers a life changing fall while under Enid’s care. As well as the guilt she feels there is resentment as she believes she is being unfairly blamed.

With the young heir now damaged and therefore the inheritance Enid had expected to come her way in jeopardy she decides she must produce another son to prevent Joan being bequeathed their mother’s sizeable estate. The responsibility of providing care for a disabled child and a newborn baby – her daughter is largely ignored – tips Enid over the edge.

The book opens on a day in 1964 with Finetta preparing to make one of her regular visits to Enid who now lives in a nursing home in Hampstead run by Christian Scientists, a belief she turned to in an attempt to cure Fagus. We learn that Finetta has a son and a daughter but the same skewed parenting preferences as her mother and grandmother.

“She’d fed and bathed them both, divorced their father and sent them away to school as soon as possible. They had grown up.”

“Her daughter was a stranger who moved with a stranger’s mood; a thing that passed and left little trace, unlike her son, for whom she felt a love so crushing she could only watch him, constantly, whether he was there or not.”

Finetta is doing her duty towards her mother but takes pleasure in observing the limitations of the life of the ‘almost dead but not dead enough’. She regards any suffering Enid must endure as her just deserts. This visit though will be different as her younger brother, Ian, is to join her – the first time he will have seen their mother in twenty-five years.

Enid feels no gratitude at her daughter’s willingness to visit each Tuesday.

“Enid had done nothing to deserve such loyalty and she resented it. She wanted to be left alone. She didn’t want to have it pointed out that she was still a mother. It was as if Finetta did it on purpose, shoving the reminder of her existence as a punishment from which Enid could not escape, a revenge dripped week by week”

Now an old woman waiting to die, cut off from the wider family she scorned yet craved attention and sympathy from, Enid cannot still the memories of her past actions which caused the breach and led to suffering for all.

The interwar timeline takes the reader through these actions, when Enid had her babies and failed to meet her own and her family’s expectations. Despite the appalling way in which she treats everyone her story is told with a degree of sympathy.

There is darkness and tension in Enid’s perceptions and yearnings. She appears childlike in her jealousies, incapable of loving selflessly. Her feelings of entitlement and perceived lack of understanding lead to her wishing to hurt her mother and sister. She cannot cope with the demands made by her children. Always she wants without being able to give.

I have read many stories of minor historical figures and the troubles they encounter despite their privileged existences. This tale offers much more depth and nuance than is typical. The writing pulls the reader under the skin of each character from where they may view the pain of selfish frustrations. There are truly shocking moments yet they are never sensationalised. Rather there is a balance in the telling that allows the reader to form their own opinions. The complexities of family relationships and the pressures these create offer much to consider.

A riveting tale of grown children damaged by the relentless actions of their entitled parents. Well paced and skilfully written, this is a haunting, recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

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