Isa and May, By Margaret Forster

Reviewed,Paul Bailey
Friday 05 March 2010 01:00

The narrator of this curious novel has an unusual name. Her parents, James and Jean, have called her Isamay, after her paternal grandmother, Isabel, and Jean's mother May. Isabel, or Isa, lives in some splendour, with Mrs Roberts to clean for her and the obliging Elspeth to bake the cakes that accompany afternoon tea. She also has a gardener on call. May, by contrast, lives alone in the two-up, two-down terraced house in which she shared her life with her husband Albert, a plumber of beloved memory, and raised four children, only one of whom, Jean, remains in London. Isamay is devoted to her widowed grannies, whose very different kinds of courage and tenacity are a source of both irritation and inspiration to her. Throughout the novel, she is working on a dissertation for an MA in Women's Studies, taking as her subject the importance of the grandmother in the family. Her supervisor, the forbidding, middle-aged Claudia, advises Isamay to examine the way certain figures from history have behaved towards their grandchildren - the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, for instance, and Queen Victoria. There are others, but it is really Isa and May with whom she is chiefly, and deeply, concerned.

Isa and May has two exceptionally lively characters - old May Wright and the storyteller herself. Between them, they tend to cast those about them into the shadows. Isamay's live-in boyfriend, Ian, stays shadowy until the final chapters, when a terrible presence from his past makes an unwelcome appearance. It has become a cliche in criticism that the protagonist in a work of fiction should be 'sympathetic', whatever that means. Isamay exhibits sympathy to her grandmothers, particularly May, but she isn't an appealing young woman. She mentions only one friend, Beattie, in the course of the narrative. She is a relentless questioner, giving the reserved and taciturn Ian little peace when she is hot for answers. Her mother, a scientist by profession, keeps her at a distance, and Dad, with whom she lunches frequently, treats her with patient good humour. May could easily have become a Cockney caution, but Forster treats her as she is - an honourable survivor who has known poverty and deprivation but still has reasons for living.

Forster's, or Isamay's, historical digressions are both sad and amusing, and occasionally threaten to take the interest away from the story being unfolded.

There is a very funny scene in a hospital, when the voluble May is reduced to silence by a nightmarish patient intent on speaking her mind. Margaret Forster's professional skills and accomplishment are to the fore, as usual, in this study of a relatively new type of historian- one as much enamoured with ordinary, unsung women, as with those who deserve to be remembered and celebrated as heroines.

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