Joanna Briscoe probes the rival passions of a mother and daughter both engaged in taboo-breaking romances
Sunday Times, 24 July 2011
Loving the wrong person is a familiar theme in fiction. In Joanna Briscoe’s new novel, the frustrated longing of its two main characters plays out over two decades, providing plenty of opportunity to explore their turbulent emotional landscape. The fact that they are mother and daughter — estranged because of feelings neither can admit — gives a new twist to the book’s examination of obsessive love.
It is the 1970s and Dora has moved to a longhouse on Dartmoor with her Irish husband Patrick and their three children. They are hoping for a rural idyll but the move forces Dora to confront her husband’s amiable laziness. Barns and outbuildings fill up with itinerant members of the counterculture as Dora struggles to make ends meet; she takes a job teaching at a nearby school and finds herself in an establishment with a hippie headmaster and pupils who regularly opt out of lessons.
Dora’s daughter Cecilia is a studious girl who hates the school’s anything-goes ethos. Along with a couple of like-minded friends, she worships her English teacher James Dahl, who has recently arrived from a conventionally run public school. Soon she is finding opportunities to bump into him outside classes, trying to impress him with her store of literary quotations. Dahl’s wife Elisabeth teaches art at the school and while Cecilia pines for James, Dora astonishes herself by falling head over heels for Elisabeth.
More than two decades later, Cecilia moves into her old home on Dartmoor with her boyfriend Ari and their children. Dora is now living in one of the old cottages on the estate, recovering from surgery for breast cancer, and her illness has prompted Cecilia to attempt a reconciliation.
Standing between them is Cecilia’s child, or rather the memory of her child, who was born in the longhouse when Cecilia was 18 and given away in an unofficial adoption. Despite having three daughters, Cecilia is haunted by the loss of her baby, imagining the presence of a ghost-child out on the moors. She has given the child a name, Mara, and one of her purposes in moving next door to her mother is to extract information about the mysterious adoptive parents.
Briscoe’s interest in unexpected love-objects has been established in her previous novels, including the bestselling Sleep with Me. Here, she counterpoints one taboo-breaking romance, between a teacher and his pupil, with the secret passion between the girl’s mother and the man’s wife. The common factor is a startling degree of self-absorption: thinking about “you” is also a way of focusing on oneself. The only member of the foursome who has an inkling about all that’s going on is also the least emotionally involved.
Briscoe’s portrait of Dora and Patrick’s chaotic household, and the impact of their parenting style on their children, is vivid and acerbic. She has a singular prose style, moving from crisp observations to sentences that seem so gorged with words that they plunge into a lush romanticism. Most of the time it works, although the female characters dominate the narrative, the men appearing weaker and perhaps a little less interesting to their creator. In the end, what appears to be a novel about women in love has at its heart another kind of passion, that of mothers for daughters and the misunderstandings that distort it.