The corrosive effect of guilt is at the centre of Margaret Forster's latest novel. Julia, a child psychologist, observes a young girl with severe behavioural issues.
The narrative then jumps back to the eight-year-old Julia, who inhabits a repressed world. Her father is dead, and she is belittled by an acerbic mother. Yet Julia is to be a bridesmaid at her cousin Iris's wedding. But when the gown arrives, it doesn't fit and Julia “had always assumed the dress would be pink”.
To add to this disappointment, Julia is entrusted to give a present from the groom to the bride, but doesn't get the chance. Her anxiety festers until the pivotal event when she takes Iris's baby for a walk. Whether by accident or intent, Julia almost tips the infant from the pram. When the baby dies suddenly the next day, Julia lies to cover her tracks. Tormented, Julia can't see beyond her own contrition, but the subconscious effects of illegitimacy and betrayal shape both character and event in a way a child can't comprehend.
All this is familiar territory for Forster. It's also something of which she has personal experience, as revealed in Hidden Lives, a family memoir. But, unlike Forster, Julia doesn't seek to understand her past. Clinically assessing her troubled patients, she fails to reflect on obvious similarities with her younger self. While her career choice and her subsequent application to be a magistrate suggest a latent desire for redemption, her refusal to see the consequences of her choices or acknowledge the love and care given by Iris's family make this unlikely.
An inversion of the usual formula, this is a journey away from self-knowledge. Julia, the child, is sensitive but honest. But her guilt becomes both cause and justification for her bad behaviour. When confronted with the full extent of her narcissism, she's unable to move beyond self-pity. The stringent control with which Forster denies absolution is remarkable and, while disturbing, believable. That Julia remains unknown to all, not least to herself, is both fascinating and frustrating.