The Landscape of Love by Sally Beauman

Why hindsight is as trustworthy as a cobra
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The Independent Culture

It is 1990 and a man in his forties writes to an old friend: "Do you remember the day we made ourselves blood brothers? I was about six and you must have been eight or nine, and we'd been fishing in the lake at the Abbey. You were after perch - there were plenty of perch. I was hoping to catch a shark. Plus ça change... "

It is 1990 and a man in his forties writes to an old friend: "Do you remember the day we made ourselves blood brothers? I was about six and you must have been eight or nine, and we'd been fishing in the lake at the Abbey. You were after perch - there were plenty of perch. I was hoping to catch a shark. Plus ça change... "



The wistful writer is Daniel Nunn, who left his native village for a lucrative career in advertising. The abbey is a huge Suffolk ruin clumsily converted into a home for the impoverished Mortland family. Dan's "blood brother" is Nick, son of the local doctor, now a successful oncologist and married to Julia, the oldest and scariest of the Mortland sisters. Dan has always been hopelessly in love with elusive Finn, the second sister. The third, little Maisie, is a strange child, possibly brilliant, perhaps autistic, perhaps "touched". The central events in this deeply intriguing novel happen one hot day in the summer of 1967 when all five of them undergo seismic experiences that, differently but incorrigibly, redirect their lives.

The story is told by three narrators. Maisie and Dan expect nobody to see their accounts and it is only by chance that Julia finds them and is able to add her coda. By then, the reader is right there, in Suffolk, totally absorbed and longing to discover more, seduced by this most dynamic and alluring storyteller.

The plot is sign-posted by reference to tarot-cards, which are notoriously susceptible to different interpretations. It is as tangled as the root-system of an ancient oak, impossible to summarise. It is equally impossible to read this book slowly, or to finish it without immediately starting again and, with the benefit of hindsight, following up as many clues as possible. But hindsight, as Dan observes, is trustworthy as a cobra, and nostalgia has a dangerously untruthful eye: though surprises happen right up to the very end, not every skein is tidily unravelled.

Which means that it's impossible to stop puzzling over the novel's mysteries. Teasing hints and literary allusions broaden the search: even the names send messages. Though linked by huge old houses and anachronistic attitudes, the Mortlands are not quite Dodie Smith's Mortmains, nor was Beauman's disdainful Julia originally created by Waugh. Though he comes from supposedly psychic gypsy stock, Daniel Nunn is not the one who can communicate with the sad religious sisters whose presence haunts the abbey. That dubious privilege is Maisie's, but who can tell precisely what Maisie knew?

The apparently bland title, too, is ambiguous. Taken literally it points to a real, long-inhabited landscape where modern farming methods render farm-hands redundant, along with their tools, cottages and even the names their ancestors gave to the now indistinguishable fields. But it is Rilke's landscape that is quoted here, and it is his yearning regretfulness which pervades the narrative. The kinds of love that Beauman explores - sisterly and blood-brotherly, parental and protective, romantic, perverted and urgently sexual - can reach extremes of anguish and joy but seldom any kind of quietus. Towards the end, a "letter" is quoted from the abbess Isabella de Morlaix to her friend, a nun at Ely. Supposedly writing in 1300, Isabella muses on "the nature of love and the unexpected ways in which it may be revealed to us". But for her, as for so many of the strong characters in these pages, the revelation comes too late.

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