A Place of Safety, by Martin Nathan, is a story of the darker side of family life. Told from the points of view of four narrators, each recalling events with slight deviations, it opens with the aftermath of a devastating house fire. Three bodies have been recovered, two of whom are presumed to be the owners, David and Esme Guralnick. David had recently left his long time job at a local estate agency that was sold a year ago to Alice, a young woman of Greek descent, who purchased the business with the help of her father. She is now facing financial difficulties.
Alice is one of four sisters but, unlike her siblings, has not married. This is another failing for which her mother berates her. Alice’s father had a string of affairs over many years and eventually left the family home. Only Alice still retains contact, something her mother and sisters view as betrayal.
“My mother had turned into an angry grass widow so many years before, with little pretence that there was any affection left for him. They didn’t split up for years, continuing to live around each other in silent hatred.”
David Guralnick and his wife had been planning on relocating to the coast and Alice had been handling the sale of their South London property. A young couple, Andrew and Carol, had shown an interest and arranged a viewing. The meeting of the potential buyers and sellers to discuss the details of what fixtures and fittings could be included had not gone as Alice expected. Now the house and contents have been burned to a shell.
Alice’s sisters are planning a gathering for their mother’s seventieth birthday. Alice knows she must attend but that it will be a trial during which she will suffer much criticism. She regards David and Esme as a couple to aspire to with their long marriage and plans for the future. She is unaware of the tensions that percolate, that they can barely tolerate each other at times and heap culpability for disappointment with how their lives have turned out.
Carol has been seeking a cause to live for since she was a teenager. When she hears Andrew speak at a meeting she seizes the opportunity to align herself with his cause.
“My family had never been people who embraced life. They lived solitary lives, regarding each other in silence, rarely deviating. Each day like the last, no change forseeable in the future. Each night they mutely congratulated each other that things had not changed. No better, but also no worse. All the potential disasters in the world had passed them by for another day. They expected me to live the same way; any suggestion I might adopt a different pattern of behaviour was perceived as a threat.”
Each of the families depicted expect their children to accept and adhere to prescribed behaviour. Reaction to deviation varies from vocal disappointment to outright rejection. The scars of guilt and resentment fester across both generations. Whilst relationships suffer, the perpetrators and victims mostly continue along their chosen paths shouldering the burden of recrimination. In one case, this weight turns deadly.
The writing has the tension and engagement of a thriller but retains sufficient originality to avoid the clichés and predictability more typical of the genre. The denouement answers the questions posed throughout the narrative but leaves the reader with plenty to consider.
A disturbing depiction of the damage caused by familial demands and expectation. Discomforting yet compelling, this is a piquant and thought-provoking read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.