1980s Wiltshire, England: a new young family joins the prosperous conservative village of busy bodies and committees… but Alice finds herself drawn most into the gentry’s wayward daughter Clodagh…
This story would work better if it were not about lesbians. There is social collateral around this subject. People reading it are likely to be one or be affected by them. Whereas a novel can give great support and understanding to real life issues, this book seems to say that lesbians are shocking and unsuitable as realistic partners. At one point – late after the affair is discovered – Alice tells her father in law that love between women has always been belittled and made to seem a bit foolish. That would be true of this book.
The reactions of everyone in the story give credence and permission to all the bigots to carry on being shocked and judgemental. Only teenage Michelle resigns her work at the shop in protest; and the only other kind person is pushed away and makes little effect on others. The overlooked father in law sounds like he is going to sympathise; but he says: if you’d married a better man, this wouldn’t have happened. At the very end, Alice is comfortable and independent and her snooty friend confesses how Alice is missed. And the new local vicar supports her. But it’s many pages too late.
If this had been a hetty affair, a selfish liaison that makes someone come alive would make sense. But love between women is something else, and I wonder if Joanna understands it. Does she not realise that many women come out after several years of marriage, to realise this is who they are, what they have hidden about themselves? She makes Alice ripe for this, a young unsure woman from an unhappy home who feels safe and adopted by her boyfriend’s family and accepts the life he offers but never feels quite right. There’s no hints about feelings for women until Clodagh bursts out hers presumptuously.
Clodagh and Alice are not given a chance to talk about whether they could live together realistically. We know that Alice’s children adore Clodagh and that she is involved in their family in a practical way. The affair comes up without a conversation and dies again in much the same way.
I hated how passive so many are against the nosy control of others – Lettice feeling she has the right to tell Clodagh to get a life; the vicar calling inlaws and a doctor to give powerful drugs to make Martin sleep, parents arriving on doorsteps without permission.
Although the affair does mean a new stronger start for Alice, that Martin finds the right woman, and that Alice’s parents have a better relationship, there are many who lose out. Martin’s family are banished and have no growth in their own marriage and lose the mother or their grandchildren who was like a daughter to them. The villagers aren’t really ever challenged over their reaction, nor learn from it. And Clodagh is on an aeroplane, alone, to God knows what but the god of the story gives no clue; her fierce heart broken, but not really having learned or gained anything else.
I was also unsure about Joanna’s storytelling style. The beginning is slow – there’s nothing to draw us in and only at the end of the 1st chapter do we see that Alice is mysteriously upset. The style is short and not great writing to start with. We don’t meet Clodagh for 70 pages. There’s a lot of back story – ch 2 is filling us in on the parent’s lives like a biography. She gives details about carpets, hair and plants which sometimes slow down the e/motion. When she does give us action and dialogue, it is often in doubly past tense – “he had said” – putting up glass, making us feel we’re watching a live event on video and are not really there.
This scenario might have been chosen for its taboo and tension, but I think it has done damage, and has perpetuated the struggles of gay women in the midst of Thatcher’s section 28 law into modern times when I hope we should know better and to give this complex situation the understating and support on all sides that it deserves.