Books: A hell of a lot of love

BLOOD TIES by Jennifer Lash Bloomsbury pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
Blood" is an unfashionable notion, except when it's being spilt on screen. In this dark, troubling novel, the sixth and last by Jennifer Lash (who died in 1993), the blood of the title appears in its old, fierce, Biblical guise: "bad blood", "blood will out", "by birth, by blood, all that ridiculous fuss of kith and kin", all within the first few pages.

The bad blood in question is that of Spencer, grandchild of the chilly and loveless Violet Marr. When her son, ridiculously called Lumsden, was born, she'd had such hopes; but Lumsden left home at 17, "dishonoured". Spencer was simply dumped one day on his staid, unresponsive grandparents, a tiny child already damaged apparently beyond help, certainly beyond the warm reach of Maura, "up from the village to see to the supper", who'd never yet encountered a creature she couldn't cajole.

So begins a novel that probes every exposed nerve of family feeling and family hell. Jennifer Lash shows with absolute certainty the ways in which man hands on misery to man. She is sharp and she is funny. Although her writing is often patchy - impulsive, breathless, over- descriptive - there are flashes of remarkable power as she sums up a world of human misery in a few phrases. Of the marriage of Violet and Cecil, for instance: "She summoned him, sent him on errands, told others what he thought and felt. He concerned himself with small decisions; which bag was more appropriate ... which toast rack, which nutcracker; the hall barometer was his only real possession." In that last remark breathes the very spirit of Philip Larkin.

Jennifer Lash defies the Larkinesque doom, however: she believes that the pattern can be broken. Damage caused by neglect and coldness can be reversed - by love. In her own family life - as Jini Fiennes she was the mother of six remarkably talented children, and foster-mother to one sadly rejected boy, who may be (must be?) the model for Spencer - she overcame a miserable childhood of her own by the sheer power of loving others. And this is the message of the novel: healing and redemption on earth through acceptance, even after death.

It's not so much a modern therapeutic approach as an old-fashioned, Catholic one: the book is old-fashioned in its pace and style. It's sometimes over- long and over-written, but there's no doubt about its heart.