To Heaven By Water, By Justin Cartwright

Justin Cartwright takes a typically sardonic look at how a family copes with the passing of its matriarch
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The Independent Culture

The Cross family are falling apart. They have lost their cornerstone, mother Nancy, who died of cancer nearly a year before. Cartwright's 10th fictional outing (leaving aside some earlier work he no longer cares to admit to) traces with trademark satirical sharpness the family's confused attempts to adapt to her absence.

Papa, David Cross, a retired TV news anchorman, worries his grown-up offspring Ed and Lucy by failing to conform to their vision of a grieving widower. Neglecting the family house in Camden, he instead spends hours improving his body at the gym. He dare not reveal that, far from being diminished by his wife's death, he feels free, more himself. Other secrets he broods over would certainly shatter his children's illusions, but only the reader knows: a pre-Nancy passion that ended in murky tragedy; Nancy's infidelity. Cartwright is particularly good on how people accommodate such destructive events if it suits them – several further shocking ones will occur in the course of this story. David is the most fully fledged character, the book's main moral commentator, and more convincing because of his faults. His search for some kind of transcendent perspective rescues the novel from its early atmosphere of depression and drift.

In contrast to David, Ed and Lucy are sketchily drawn. Ed is a solicitor, working for a firm whose senior partner is an old pal of David's. He is married to the lovely Rosalie, a marvellously drawn example of that fraught species of girl who lives "in thrall to her feelings" – in her case, a passion for ballet and an obsession with conceiving a child. The latter is threatening their marriage. Ed is just shallow; he starts a dalliance with a trainee at work alarmingly easily and lightly. He blames the absence of steadying Mama for his weakness, but this pathetic excuse stands at odds with his desire to escape Dad's shadow by moving jobs.

Lucy starts off shadowy, with a shadowy sort of career – she catalogues early Christian coins at an auction house. Quite why she has hitched herself to narcissist boyfriend Josh is imponderable, but once given the elbow, Josh stalks her in a terrifying manner. She, too, blames poor old Nancy, concluding that her mother protected her from "real life". After this supposed revelation, she's suddenly able to flower as a person. It would be useful to be able to assess this self-judgement. The characters in this book so often have the advantage over the reader in having known Nancy.

The dialogue is occasionally unconvincing. Sometimes it reveals too much: would a father tell a grieving daughter that although he misses her mother, "we weren't what somebody of your age would think of as in love"? Or it says too little: the page- long verbal sallies between Ed and Lucy offer comic effect rather than information or real insight into their relationship, and in voices insufficiently distinct.

There is plenty on the plus side. Cartwright, with often startling imagery, offers a glorious range of minor characters: the drunken hoary chorus of David's friends at the "Noodle Club" in Soho; David's tragicomic brother Guy, seeking enlightenment among the bushmen of their childhood veldt, to where David later escapes. Savvy thumbnail sketches of Londoners glimpsed on Tube trains, at the gym, or walking dogs on Hampstead Heath, accumulate to create a vivid picture of the city.

The novel is bookended by two quite different scenes featuring Gerard Manley Hopkins's "The Windhover", one of the most exhilarating and transcendent poems in the language. It's very apt, for somehow, through reconciliation, ritual, romance and plain ruthlessness, the Cross family eventually construct a new framework and mythology for themselves.