The opening of Maggie O'Farrell's first novel offers the reader an outrageously come-hitherish hook. Alice, just arrived at Edinburgh station, is so agitated by an "odd and unexpected and sickening" glimpse of a mysterious "something" that she jumps straight on the next train back to King's Cross. Later, wandering dazed about the Camden streets, she steps in front of a car, only partly accidentally, and is knocked into a coma.
She remains hanging between life and death in her hospital bed. This condition - where she fleetingly rises close to the surface, catching a familiar voice, or smell, and then sinks back to darkness - is again credibly done. Not until the end of the novel is there a hint of whether she'll survive, and by that time Alice has been conveyed as such a vital, passionate, obstinate character that it really seems to matter.
Alice, second of three sisters, is of the third generation of women to have lived in a grand old house in chilly North Berwick. By dint of some very deft structuring, the life of her grandmother, mother and herself is conveyed in luminous snatches. They are lives of ordinary difficulty. O'Farrell proves excellent at relationships; particularly the ambivalent ones. Elspeth never quite likes her daughter-in law Ann, but despite prickliness they get on, holding between them like a taut skein of yarn the family secret that overturns Alice's sense of self.
O'Farrell's clean, pellucid prose makes this an effortless read. But though it's a light book, it has some heavy themes: deception, racism, loss. It darts around in time, and between viewpoints, moving easily between the three generations.
The achronological spotting-about in time breaks the sense of causality inherent in a linear narrative. Yet the moments of significance suggest that the characters' courses of behaviour are anything but random. This sets up a fascinating tension between form and content, while the handling of time gives a life-enhancing sense of the co-existence of every moment, so that grief does not cancel out joy.
Love in many guises - romantic, familial, unwilling, redemptive - powers the novel. Soon after they meet, the love between Alice and John overwhelms them both. It's passionate, tender and portrayed with a refreshing lack of cynicism. The relationship is simultaneously erotic and pure. Pure, because each is genuinely in love with the other; and erotic, because O'Farrell writes very tempting sex.
But there is an obstacle. John is Jewish and his father cannot countenance the idea of his son marrying a gentile. He forces John to choose: himself or Alice. This is an excruciating conflict for Alice, since the outcome is both crucial to her happiness and out of her control. And when the marriage is brought to a sudden, ugly end, O'Farrell portrays Alice's grief so wrenchingly that it is almost unbearable to read.
I was more affected by the evocation of smaller moments of intuition: the meeting of eyes; the words left unsaid; instances of simple kindness: as when Alice's mother strips her injured daughter's bed to wash the sheets and comes across John's sleep-smelling T-shirt crumpled under the pillow. She refrains, with uncharacteristic sensitivity, from putting it in the wash but keeps it back, "just in case". Such fine emotional delicacy really distinguishes this compulsively readable and accomplished first novel.
Lesley Glaister's latest novel is 'Sheer Blue Bliss' (Bloomsbury)Reuse content