The Family Tree, by Carole Cadwalladr

That's enough of the eternal - let's go for the ephemeral
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The Independent Culture

The theme of the dysfunctional family is a common starting-point for a first novelist and Carole Cadwalladr's blackly comic debut is, for the most part, a refreshing take on a well-worn subject. The plot, as summarised by one of the minor characters, runs as follows: "Three generations of women, blah blah blah. Triumph over adversity. After many trials, it all turns out OK in the end." Rebecca Monroe, the book's self-deprecating narrator, uses her doctoral thesis on late-1970s popular culture ("I study the ephemeral. There were enough people doing the eternal, I decided") to lift the lid on her troubled childhood and in particular the suicide of her manic-depressive mother, who locked herself in the bathroom, never to emerge, after a fraught party on the day of Charles and Diana's wedding in 1981.

The theme of the dysfunctional family is a common starting-point for a first novelist and Carole Cadwalladr's blackly comic debut is, for the most part, a refreshing take on a well-worn subject. The plot, as summarised by one of the minor characters, runs as follows: "Three generations of women, blah blah blah. Triumph over adversity. After many trials, it all turns out OK in the end." Rebecca Monroe, the book's self-deprecating narrator, uses her doctoral thesis on late-1970s popular culture ("I study the ephemeral. There were enough people doing the eternal, I decided") to lift the lid on her troubled childhood and in particular the suicide of her manic-depressive mother, who locked herself in the bathroom, never to emerge, after a fraught party on the day of Charles and Diana's wedding in 1981.

Unhappily yet doggedly married to a boorish behavioural scientist obsessed with genetic traits and no desire to have children, Rebecca sets out to prove that biology is not necessarily destiny. The counter-motif to this story is that of her beloved grandmother, Alicia, now descending into the murkiness of Alzheimer's. The revelations of her aborted love affair with a Jamaican airman in 1940s Yorkshire and subsequent hasty marriage to a first cousin pose increasing doubts as to the veracity of Rebecca's own history.

Cadwalladr (pictured) moves dextrously between decades and generations, framing each chapter with dictionary definitions, multiple-choice questions, quirky graphs and rather tiresome sociological footnotes, highlighting Rebecca's dual role: that of professional researcher and unearther of personal secrets. The writing is deft, poignant yet savage. She excels at dialogue and descriptive passages. The odd triangle of Alicia, her lover Cecil (with skin "the colour of a Callard & Bowser toffee"), and creepy cousin Herbert - whose most passionate relationship appears to be with his ferrets - is memorably evoked, as is the comforting claustrophobia of a long-ago caravanning holiday: "I fell asleep dreaming of the Waltons, zipped into my sleeping bag as if I was a pencil in a pencil case. We stole each other's breath like cats."

The depiction of Rebecca's immediate family is less successful. Her mother ("the missing gap") is no more than a brittle caricature overwhelmed by a self-conscious litany of 1970s brand-names, an overachieving older sister a paler imitation, her mumbling father scarcely drawn. Rebecca's irritatingly omniscient husband Alistair, who resembles "a voiceover on a BBC2 documentary" is a cliché, an emotionally distant, manipulative cardboard cut-out scientist who is using her as part of his experimental work on mitochondrial DNA - in this case mental illness passed through the maternal line. "My grandmother, my mother and me; fruit flies all."

As the novel moves hurriedly towards an unsurprising dénouement, the emphasis on the nature/nurture debate grows wearisome and unwieldy. This is a pity, because much of the writing is engaging, and Cadwalladr has real talent and a particular gift for comedy. Let's hope that with her next book she is less clumsy when disentangling the seriousness from the spoof.

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