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.

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – Keeping it real?

From the festival programme:

The world is full of fascinating and important stories but setting real personalities on the page also presents challenges and responsibilities.

This event featured readings, discussion and Q&A with writers Alex Pheby, Shiromi Pinto and Matthew De Abaitua. It was chaired by Sam Jordison.

There are many ways of approaching the stories of people who existed. When choosing to write about them an author must decide how to present their interpretation. If interest is piqued, readers are likely to check for themselves what are regarded as known facts. In straying from these, or creating a story from what goes unsaid but may be suggested between the lines, an author is asking that the reader accept their version of events for what it is – a story. The blurring of fact and fiction happens everywhere a tale is told to an audience.

In 2019 Influx Press will publish Plastic Emotions by Shiromi Pinto. This book tells the story of Sri Lanka’s first female architect, Minnette de Silva, and her relationship with fellow architect Le Corbusier. It is a tale of lost love, ego and affairs, charting the erosion of post-independence ideals as seen by two architects at different points in their careers.

Shiromi talked about her protagonist, de Silva, who came from a politically active family. They were wealthy, progressive, left leaning liberals and the girl grew up amongst a certain class of people including Gandhi and Nehru. On moving to London she mixed with the likes of the Gielguds and Picasso. de Silva met Le Corbusier after she returned to Sri Lanka, the first Asian woman to have become an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. She was a pioneer of modernism in Sri Lanka yet when men adopted this style a decade later her contributions were eclipsed. Despite being successful and ahead of the curve she is remembered more for her relationship with a successful man rather than for her own significant achievements in her field.

Shiromi read to us from the prologue of Plastic Emotions, pointing out that the book is still undergoing editorial rewrites.

In the mid 1990s, 22 year old Matthew De Abaitua was hired by the newly divorced and in-demand enfant terrible of the British literary scene, Will Self, as his ‘amanuensis’, translated as slave at hand. Matthew lived with the writer in a remote cottage in Suffolk and helped with research and anything else needed. This was regarded as an exciting opportunity by the eager young man, fresh out of Malcolm Bradbury’s Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia. He had worked as a security guard on the Liverpool docks to help fund his education and came to the role with a degree of naivity.

Will was ambitious. He realised that the media performance of himself affected how readers would accept his work. The book that Matthew has written about this time, Self & I, captures the 90s, the triangulations people make, and the compromises to progress their work.

The reading brought to life what sounds like a fascinating book.

Galley Beggar Press have recently published Alex Pheby’s second novel, Lucia, to critical acclaim. Lucia was the only daughter of James Joyce and her family subsequently tried to erase her from the public record. In doing so they have created a fascination with Lucia’s story. Lengthy biographies have been written as well as plays and histories. Alex wished to write into the spaces, to explore who gets to say what about who. In his story he explores the silencing of a silenced woman. He does not always go down the route current commentators on Joyce demand.

As if to prove his point on the sometimes controversial nature of his work, Alex read from the animal torture scene.

Sam asked the panel if they felt any anxiety about their depictions, if they felt any duty towards their subjects.

Matthew talked of the ethics of writing about a living person. He chose never to attribute anything to what may be going on inside Will’s head. When the manuscript of his book was complete he sent it to Will and it was returned within 48 hours! Had he said no to publication then Matthew wouldn’t have proceeded. Matthew told us that he was periphery to Will’s life, although Will had been key to him.

Shiromi granted herself a lot of freedom in interpreting de Silva’s life but tried not to do this with her architecture. This required much fact checking. She felt the struggle between writing as she imagined events to have played out and fitting this alongside known facts. In the end she wrote as she wanted.

Sam asked Alex where Lucia was in Lucia.

Alex didn’t know. If she exists in retrievable form then she exists in this book. Any evidence in literary form is questionable, including his. He took risks and was not always respectful. He mentions problems that others won’t acknowledge, as they pretend the rumours cannot be true.

Sam asked about lost moments and memory, of their time and our time.

Matthew pointed out that his story, although set not that long ago, was before the internet, Harry Potter, the abolition of the net book agreement. At author events back then a reading could last 45 minutes and the audience were expected to sit in respectful silence before each buying hardbacks and having them signed. Will wanted to disrupt the social order. With the advent of social media authors are expected to be nice, to ask readers to buy their books.

Shiromi talked about colonial idealism and the erosion of this, how the ideals of the new nation of Sri Lanka deteriorated.

The audience were invited to ask questions. The authors were asked if they felt less responsibility when writing fiction.

Alex commented that certain people are unwilling to understand that it is foolish for a critic to complain about the truth of an account. He suggested that readers are no longer equipped to deal critically with fiction (I disagree but that is for another conversation).

The authors were asked if these fictions are required to have a relationship with fact, otherwise why use real names.

Shiromi told us that she is more comfortable writing a novel rather than a memoir. She wanted to write about a great story, perhaps to prompt others to look deeper. She also finds writing fiction more fun.

Matthew mentioned that this type of writing has been described as a thinly veiled portrait which he finds anachronistic. He prefers to name names, to offer a frisson between real and fiction. He used his own experiences to provide narrative but avoids imposing his thoughts on others.

The authors were asked if they agonised over the points of view used.

Alex talked of the many shifts of voice and grammar in addressing the reader. He asked himself: what do they want to find out and why; what does this mean about the reader. All writing is fictive. What differs is the edges, the bleeding in and leeching out of realities.

Shiromi explained that point of view shifts throughout her tale. She did what she felt was necessary to tell the story of an intriguing character.

Matthew wrote in the present tense as he chose to exclude hindsight. He experienced this period as a younger version of himself, one who didn’t understand much of what was going on at the time. He wished to avoid a reinterpretation.

And with that the event was out of time. The authors moved towards the shop to sign any books purchased. My daughter and I were provided with much to discuss, especially around how certain authors can appear to regard their readers!

 

Click on the covers to find out more about the books, and do please consider buying them.