With a four day holiday in view a number of bloggers have been organising an Easter Readathon. Now, while I didn’t want to commit to anything as definite as that, the long weekend has provided me with an opportunity to catch up with some of the library books sitting on my shelf which I know I can’t linger over as there are other borrowers waiting for them. I started on Thursday evening with Margaret Forster’s latest novel, The Unknown Bridesmaid, and I’m hoping that before my normal routine kicks in on Tuesday morning, I will also have been able to finish Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. If I can make a start on The Scent of Death, Andrew Taylor’s new thriller, then that will be a bonus, but the Atkinson is hefty, so I may not make the third of my trio.
I finished the Forster this morning and have been thinking about it ever since. I normally like Forster. The keen eye that she turns onto family relationships never fails to pinpoint with deadly accuracy the difficulties that are inherent in maintaining such close (in the physical sense, if not always the emotional) groupings. Her novels inevitably make me reflect on my own bonds with family and friends – not always with comfortable results.
That keen eye is particularly apparent here because her main character, Julia, works with children who have been referred to the centre where she is employed as a result of exhibiting behaviour that society considers to be abnormal or unacceptable. In each case the child, always a girl, is either failing to engage with the rest of the family group or acting in a manner that either hurts or threatens injury to other children around her. We don’t need to dig for any subtle indications of relationships breaking down here, those breakdowns are laid bare before us.
Each of Julia’s encounters with one of these troubled children is intercut with chronologically ordered episodes from her own childhood and gradually we begin to realise that there are clear links between the two narratives. Julia has not had it easy and her response to what life has thrown at her has led to seriously strained relationships with other members of her family. Because these early memories are presented to us from the point of view of the child Julia as she experiences, them it takes some time to piece together what is happening and consequently I felt that even though the purpose of Forster’s chosen structure is pretty transparent it worked well for the first half of the novel.
However, as the story develops other features begin to seem contrived. Julia takes on a position as a magistrate and in this role encounters women who, having had troubled childhoods themselves, as adults are unable to function within those parameters society deems acceptable. This, we are being told, is what happens when help is not forthcoming and the child is allowed to be ‘mother to the woman’. There is also a strong indication that what help there has been in the past is now being undermined by changes to provisions dictated by economic and political exigencies. The message is clear – society is failing these children.
Clear and perhaps too strident: however, what saves the novel from becoming simply a polemic is the suggestion in Julia’s story that perhaps society needs to be more encompassing in its understanding of the ways in which long-term damage can manifest itself. It isn’t just those women we meet in the Magistrates’ Court who have difficulty functioning as part of a social group. Look around you, Forster appears to be saying, and you will find many more who on the surface seem to be coping but who in reality, as a result of their childhood experiences, are divorced from the very groupings that should form their life-long support systems.
This certainly isn’t my favourite Forster novel, but nevertheless, I’m glad I’ve read it and if you have also done so I would be really interested to hear your views.