Confirming Tolstoy’s dictum, the MacBride family is unhappy in its own way. Lydia, the dying matriarch, her donnish husband, their grown children are troubled by present concerns and some deep wound in the past, trouble exacerbated by Lydia’s secret which she is revealing in her diary.
She dies and the family, with spouses and grandchildren, converge on their converted barn in Devon for a healing interlude. Already fraught with a new baby and wayward husband the eldest daughter arrives to find her father, the widower, an abstemious man, dead drunk. From this point the situation, ostensibly beset with the problem of the disposal of Lydia’s ashes, accelerates downhill, descending to bewilderment and mystery with the arrival of the son, a once beautiful boy now hideously scarred, and his lovely girl friend who is virtually mute.
Tensions explode on the night that the local town holds its Bonfire Celebrations and the new baby goes missing along with the strange girl friend. At this crucial moment, one quarter through the novel, the action switches from the viewpoint of Sophie, the eldest sibling, mother of the missing baby, to a newcomer called Darcy, and the time is seventeen years before Lydia’s death. Although Darcy is the protagonist in the rest of the book it is dominated by three strong women: his mother, Lydia, and Sophie: fierce, powerful matrons. The common denominator is a cathedral school attended by the MacBride children and the shining goal for which Darcy’s mother has raised him, tutoring him herself and with such academic success that he is over-qualified. He fails the entrance exam. His mother goes into denial – and Darcy is his mother’s creation.
This is a novel of hatred and revenge and guilt nicely distributed between the characters. Occasionally the hand of fate obtrudes, masked as coincidence – like the appearance of a dense sea fog when the baby goes missing on Bonfire Night.
Throughout the reader is borne along on waves of fascinated horror, in awe at the passion of Darcy’s mother; if the long crescendo of bile appears to be going over the top, that would be so only if normal people were involved in normal circumstances but here we have a number of intelligent people driven to extremes by events. Some are disturbed and recover, others go mad. The climax is melodramatic but if it seems out of kilter, events are often so in reality.
An enthralling read.