Getting Colder, Amanda Coe, review: The fake story spun and the real story unfolding

This is not a book about neat endings or easy answers; it’s a story of absences and disappointment

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The Independent Culture

There are two epigraphs to screenwriter and author Amanda Coe’s splendid second novel Getting Colder: the first is from Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters, the collection of poems addressed to his first wife Sylvia Plath; and the second a quote from the artist Louise Bourgeois, whose most famous piece – the huge steel spider sculpture titled Maman (1999) – represents the figure of the mother.

Although Getting Colder opens in the aftermath of her death, the woman at the heart of Coe’s story and the glue that holds the characters together is Sara. Back in the 1980s, torn between these two identities – wife and mother – she publicly rejected the latter, leaving her first marriage and two children, in favour of the former: life as the lover and muse of British theatre’s enfant terrible, Patrick Conway.

Thirty-five years later, Sara dies, leaving Patrick – angry, whisky-soaked and frozen with writer’s block – mouldering in their run-down house in Cornwall. The stage is set for an awkward family reunion as the children Sara abandoned all those years ago, Louise and Nigel, descend on the house. Despite being all grown up, and now with kids of their own, the wounds of their childhood are still festering, ripped raw as they sift through the psychological detritus left in the wake of their mother’s death – she hadn’t even told them she was ill, just another of her many secrets.

Coe’s first novel What They Do in the Dark offset the account of a 1970s child star’s disquieting film project against the provincial lives of two teenage girls living in a suburban Yorkshire town, ultimately shocking her readers with a conclusion so gruesome it suggested reality is far more disturbing than any fictional horror story. A similar concern with the fine line between the public and private, the fake story spun and the real story unfolding, can be found here in Getting Colder. Patrick and Sara were regularly pictured in the colour-supplements – together they summed up talent, beauty and grand romance: the perfect pair. But this, of course, isn’t the full story. It doesn’t include images of the abandoned children – Nigel’s years of being bullied at boarding school, or Louise floundering without her mother’s support.

The brilliant What They Do in the Dark was always going to be a hard act to follow, but Getting Colder has once again proved that Coe’s a fearless writer, not afraid to linger in the murky, messy corners of her characters’ lives. This is not a book about neat endings or easy answers; it’s a story of absences and disappointment where the supposedly simplest question – Why? – is met with a resounding silence.

Virago,  £14.99. Order for £13.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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