Books: Independent choice: Fictional family life

Fictional family life

Some novels can help to make sense of the inexplicable, and Candida Crewe's The Last to Know (Century, pounds 14.99) is a good example. In this intriguing study of the psychology of irrational behaviour and selfishness, GP Kim Black simply walks out on his much-loved wife Sylvie, a court welfare officer. No other women. No row. No reason. He goes to buy ice cream for supper and doesn't come back. Instead he drifts to Inverness via London and finally to a four-month stint of odd jobbing in towns all over Britain. He has no idea why, and eventually "the limp orgasm of flaccid and pointless anonymity" palls. The poignant narrative alternates between Sylvie's present tense and the rather more distant past tense for Kim. We know where Kim is and what he's doing, but homely Sylvie doesn't. She is left to struggle with the chilling discovery that she doesn't know the father of her children and her husband of more than 20 years. Her anxiety and his irrational calm are nicely counterpointed, invoking in the reader a yearning for the couple's reconciliation.

Another dysfunctional couple are Eleanor and Clay Mitchell in The Househunter by Henry Sutton (Sceptre, pounds 12.99). Married for 15 years, forty-something, and childless, Eleanor is desperate for motherhood. But her dull, chain- smoking, heavy drinking husband seems to be sterile. Having lost her job, Eleanor begins to look at houses for sale. The novel is structured around the London addresses she visits. Househunting becomes her journey of discovery. Encounters - sexual and otherwise - with estate agents, and discoveries about the absent owners whose houses she views are her staging posts. Sutton has a gazetteer's eye for places and his descriptions of London houses and streets are startlingly accurate. The outcome of The Househunter is not predictable.

In A History of Silence (Macmillan, pounds 16.99), Barbara Neil is more concerned with the relationships between children and parents - or parent substitutes - than in marriage partners. Esther, now quite old, is the mother of sisters Robbie and Laura. Laura has a boy, Will, and eventually four other children - two natural and two step.

Robbie, who narrates this compelling novel, and Laura are inextricably bonded and flawed by shared memories of sexual abuse at the hands of their father and his nasty mistress, "the woman Jane". Neither sister can, in adult life, understand how their mother had insisted that they should spend time in the house of their father, a "healer".

Both women are profoundly damaged. Robbie, a successful physiotherapist, seems unable to form sexual relationships. Laura is a night-club singer. They are as attached to each other as any married couple. Robbie's attempt to escape from Britain and its associations by taking a job in Louisiana eventually leads to Laura's following her. There, Laura makes a stable relationship with a decent lawyer. Then she leaves without a word.

Laura is, in a sense, replicating her sad childhood in the lives of her own brood. This in spite of her passionate love for "her" five children, two already abandoned by their natural mother. Although the pessimistic Larkinian sentiment "They fuck you up, your mum and dad", underpins this beautifully written and disturbing novel, there is a ray of hope for the future at the end.

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