This is Louise Doughty's second novel about the lives of Romany people. Based upon her own family, spanning four generations and taking in several viewpoints, Stone Cradle is a sweeping yet concise history of the travelling Smiths in Cambridgeshire and the Fens over an 85-year period. At the centre of the book is the relationship beween the tiny but formidable Clementina Smith, who has learned to be hard in order to survive the appalling circumstances of her early years, and her daughter-in-law, the equally tough gorjer (or non-Romany) Rose. Between the two is Elijah, whose life we witness from the "stone cradle" of the gravestone on which the teenage Clementina gives birth to him to his final interment on a rainy afternoon in Peterborough.
Two burials sandwich the meat of the story, catching worlds in between. This is not an especially long book but it conveys a sense of time passing; focused moments offset against the giddying swiftness of it all. Doughty has a subtle, unshowy talent that packs an emotional punch, and creates characters and relationships that ring true.
That between the two women is particularly well realised, with the abiding antipathy and grudging acceptance that builds up over the years. If there is a criticism it is that their voices are almost identical, but perhaps this is meant to emphasise the fact that, despite the mutual hostility, these two are cut from the same cloth.
Doughty manages to convey wells of complex emotion between spiky people with the minimum of sentimentality. There is equally little romance in her depiction of the travelling people, though she is fascinated and charmed by a way of life that has now vanished. The lore and beauty are here, but also mud and cold, hunger and cruelty, and a convincing and clear-sighted portrayal of the corrosive prejudice at the core of things.
The children of Elijah and Rose, whose lives encompass both settled times and periods on the road, are spat upon and pushed about in the playground when they attend a gorjer school. But they are also looked down upon as "half 'n halfs", never fully accepted by the Travellers.
Underlying all is a sense of the fundamental insecurity of life. About halfway through the book, Clementina tells us about the Ghost Pig, the terrifying revenge spectre of a farmer's prize sow poisoned by the Travellers in return for his poor treatment of them. This, "the thing that mothers frightened their children with across the whole of the Fens ... was sort of like the realness of life that lies in wait for you and jumps out". Sometimes that reality is a horror, but this is in no way a depressing read, lifted as it is by a light easy style, the likeableness of its characters, and the skill of a writer who knows how to home in on the telling detail.
Baldness hidden under his cap, Elijah in his rather seedy old age is still carefully fashioning his one remaining lock of hair into a kiss-curl, just as his mother did the moment he was born. Vanity, pride and the almost unbearable love a mother feels for a child are evoked in one deft stroke that concertinas time. Artfully informative (only once did I feel the clunk of a piece of research being shoehorned in), Stone Cradle moves and impresses in equal measure.
Carol Birch's novel 'The Naming of Eliza Quinn' is published by ViragoReuse content