Brother & Sister by Joanna Trollope

If your mum talked like this you'd want to strangle her

Joanna Trollope's latest novel wades through the anguish of adoption, scooping up the pain of the adopted child, the agony of the birth mother and the insecurity of the adoptive parent along the way. If I was any one of the characters imprisoned in the murky jelly of this novel, I'd be straight on to the Adoption Agency, demanding to be re-settled with another creator. Joanna Trollope has a subject capable of making us weep at the tragedy and the loss, and yet what does she achieve? She so resolutely makes her characters emote to each other in a ghastly brand of unisex mush that I actually found myself blushing.

Here is Marnie talking to her 12-year-old daughter Ellen who, we are told, is wearing "an uneasy little top which outlined the diffident small buds of her breasts". Marnie is married to a man who was adopted not once, but twice, and she thinks she knows a thing or two about feelings.

"You'll find experience dictates your knowledge," she says to her daughter. "And validates it." Save Ellen, save us all, from dialogue like that. How Ellen restrains herself from wrapping her uneasy little top round her mother's neck is a mystery to me. Trollope's characters talk to each about "the dynamic" and are forever locked in stagy poses, complete with "balled fists". If the relentlessness of the pitiful dialogue is like a hammer drill on the skull, the signposts we're offered to help us through the story are outlined in flashing pink neon. There are plenty of tricky relationships between biological children and their parents, for example, just in case we thought that only adopted children have problems.

There's no question that Joanna Trollope covers the ground on adoption. The brother and sister of the title fall neatly into the two categories established in recent academic literature on adopted siblings. One is the tricky, truculent one who can't get close to her mother, and the other is the quiet, acquiescent, obedient one. The fact that Trollope has so obviously read The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child by the American psychotherapist Nancy Verrier actually underpins the real problem. Brother & Sister isn't a novel, it's a series of case studies. It would work if submitted as part of a psychology degree, but it simply doesn't hang together as fiction. In the same way that a box of toy soldiers doesn't make a game until a child plays with them, Trollope's characters remain in their wrapping for the duration, and she simply turns her back on them.

The triteness of Trollope's prose doesn't really matter, and the confusing way in which one character elides into another simply because they all speak with the same infuriating voice is of no particular importance either. The two huge failings just make this a very irritating book to read. The tragedy lies in the expectations raised. Surely anyone who has been wounded by adoption, or indeed anyone whose life has been enhanced, is entitled to a better attempt at representing the situation than Joanna Trollope is able to offer. Today, the complexities of adoption have never been more starkly exposed. Margaret Hodge, the Children's Minister, says that countless children adopted after their birth parents were accused of harming them, cannot be returned to their original families because so much time has gone by. A law is to be introduced giving those born from donated sperm or eggs the right to find their biological parents. Adoption may be less common than it was a generation ago, but the pain of infertile women, adopted children and those who entrust their babies to other people, is as great as it ever was. God forbid that novels should have to provide comforting answers or cheering resolutions. But they must at least have the decency to sound genuine.

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