Amanda Hodgkinson is fast becoming a fine fictional chronicler of women’s lives in the mid-20th century. Her acclaimed debut, 22 Britannia Road, examined the life of a Polish refugee reunited with her husband in Ipswich after the Second World War. In Spilt Milk, we move down the road to rural Suffolk, and a more ambitious canvas. The novel straddles three generations of a family of misfit women, using a multiplicity of vivid viewpoints.
In 1913, Nellie, Vivian and Rose Marsh live “on the edge of the world”, miles from a village, in the curve of a river, and you’d know the three women were related because their eyes are “Grey as rain-swelled waters”. The Marsh parents died when Nellie and Vivian were tiny, and the embittered, much older Rose, around whom hangs a mystery, has brought them up alone here, away from the society of men and any hopes of marriage. It is with Rose’s death and the arrival of Joe, a handsome travelling man with whom both the younger girls fall in love, that the network of secrets that underpins the narrative begins to spread. While restless Joe moves on again, Vivian is left to suffer the anguish of giving birth to their baby girl, who dies. Nellie buries her. Though the women each subsequently marry, Nellie moving to London and Vivian to a county town, the novel’s focus always returns to their childhood home and all it represents.
Hodgkinson’s lush descriptions of country life are one of the book’s many pleasures. She also knows the right words to crack open a woman’s heart and reveal the tenderness within. This is a story that explores mother-hood and sisterhood with great subtlety and power. All her life, Vivian will yearn for another child. Nellie comes to regret sending away her own daughter, Birdie, to give her husband Henry peace and quiet. Women give the book its force and energy. By contrast, the male characters seem peripheral, though they’re still able to control.
In 1939, the old pattern is repeated. Eighteen-year-old Birdie becomes pregnant after a one-night stand. The young man responsible goes off to war, none the wiser. Birdie is sent to live with Vivian to avoid scandal and the baby, heart-breakingly, is adopted. Attitudes will be more liberal for the next generation, in the 1960s, but past secrets and lies retain their ability to poison. With its strong storytelling, haunting characters and beautiful, supple prose, Hodgkinson’s fiction deserves a wider audience.