This is a fascinating read both as a story about the damage parents do to children and in terms of what is happening behind the text. You know it isn’t going to be easy when the first section is called Margaret and seems to be all about someone called Ella! As it unfolds, Margaret turns out to be Ella’s mother, unable to connect properly with her daughter and irrevocably damaged by her marriage to the homosexual Hugo who, as well as maintaining separate rooms within the household, eventually brings his lover Nick to join the party. These relationships are founded on several deceits underpinned by a complex mesh of silence and self-denials. It is clearly no place to raise a child and Ella is the damaged product.
Her instinct is to run away which she then does throughout the novel. Apart from fleeing to Europe and living that complex alienated life in another culture, she also runs away from opportunities in her work and personal life. Whenever she wakes up, she struggles to think about where she is. In social situations, she makes excuses – metaphorically and physically in constant flight.
She eventually meets Max through a chanced cat sitting task and then, as expected, panics, flees and tries to find reasons to reject him. Within a developing relationship with him, his father and his sister, Ella can be relied upon to introspect about what to say, read the situation wrongly and then say the wrong thing. Embarrassed by this she then leaves. It’s become a pattern.
Max seems to understand but it becomes clear that that is partly because of his own problems with his own mother, Olivia, who was – eventually – overcome by her own demons. In the second section of the novel, titled Olivia, Ella learns more about her as she attempts to write a novel focusing on Margaret’s calamitous wedding, honeymoon and beyond. Through this, and although she still cannot cope with situations and responds with panic, Ella is beginning the slow process of self-understanding which might lead to something better.
That doesn’t come, and even then it unfolds very slowly, until the third section of the book which is, at last, named after the narrator, Ella. There is some resolution here without giving too much away and we are left with two individuals, both damaged in various ways, but with some level of self-realisation and able to relate to one another. There is hope, at least.
It’s a good story, well told and stylishly described but also more complicated than that. The book which Ella is writing is the one in which she features and is called L’Anglaise although it clearly isn’t the same text. The elaborated description of a woman escaping to a foreign culture and unable to make the right choices constantly echoes Anita Brookner’s writing and sometimes raises the question of whether this is ‘un hommage‘ or a pastiche. That is interesting because Helen E Mundler also turns out to be a bit of an expert on Brookner so she knows what she is playing with!
Whatever is going on here that doesn’t detract from the fact that this is an excellent and engrossing read which draws you in, a social commentary on ghastly middle-class niceties and the impossibility of ever saying anything which is true, and a plot which offers resolution to Ella and, somewhere, the hope of redemption for us all.
(Thanks for a review copy via NetGalley from the publishers, Holland House Books.)