[This novel is in five parts. I decided to read it one part at a time, writing about each part before reading on—so I didn’t know how things would develop.]
17 October 2018
Hetta is the first of three narrators, all women and all members of the same family. She’s writing as an adult, some years after the childhood events she is describing. Her older brother had been a Cambridge student who, at the very start of the novel, is taken to hospital in a critical condition after falling from one of the spires of King’s College Chapel. Her recounting of their lives leading up to this event ends some time before the fall, so we don’t yet know whether he’ll live. At best, his injuries will be life-changing.
Recently, I read a novella by a different woman writer, and it struck me that some women have realised that stories don’t have to be told in the same old way. That author is Margaret Atwood, well known for pushing boundaries and, while Salley Vickers is no Atwood—who is?—in Cousins there is some of what I found in The Penelopiad: ‘a kind of empathy with the plight of others that moves the story on in a different way from what we’re used to … there isn’t the relentless forward thrust of the plot. We know the plot already. This is collage, patchwork, community.’ Of course, I’m only a quarter of the way through so far. Maybe there will be plots.
What Vickers’ novel is definitely about are the strains and cracks that exist in one particular family even before the tragic event that kick-starts it. There’s little enough that’s innovative in the middle-class setting, with the big, ramshackle house and garden, holiday homes, private schooling for some—and Cambridge of course. But there’s something engaging about the way Vickers allows Hetta to let things unfold as though by chance, or as they would if anyone were remembering things from a very long time ago. There are memories, sure, but there are constructed memories too, events that Hetta admits she knows as much from family stories as from her own recall of them, and there are things she is finding out or realising now for the first time. It isn’t clear yet how long ago the events took place—it was the 1990s, but we don’t know if the narration of them is happening as late as 2016, when the novel was published. Certainly, enough time has passed for Hetta to have grown up and become a published writer…. Some people will have died by now, but others are still alive and Hetta is still coming to terms with their versions. That’s largely what this whole novel is about, I think. All their certainties, even the children’s complacent middle-class attitudes, are up for re-examination and revision.
Certainties. As we might expect, family ties are a kind of bedrock. (The family surname is Tye and, obviously, it’s no accident.) Hetta is the youngest of three, with Will in the middle—he’s the one who’s fallen from the chapel spire—and Syd the much older sister that Hetta had very little to do with as a child. Names, as in many middle-class families, are a thing. Syd is really—well, what? I can’t remember the girl’s name that Syd is short for—and Hetta called herself that to avoid the risk of Henrietta being shortened to Henry. They have a cousin who never knows her father until she meets him when almost an adult, and she is Cele, short for whatever, spelled like that so she wouldn’t be the sea-mammal. Her time at school was bad enough without that. She’d been sent away to board by a mother who was far more interested in her own life—and the lovers always called ‘the applicants’ by the family. Her name is Bell, short for… etc. Cele is important because she’s Will’s age, and spends summers with them. Hetta, some years younger, sees her almost as another sister, until she finds her and Will… guess. She’s as shocked as you would expect. But the reader is clocking something different…
…because Fred, the leftist, former conscientious objector grandfather married his cousin. We remember this because the grandmother, known as Betsy—she becomes one of the other narrators later—has always made a joke about not wanting to change her name on marriage. So, two Tyes. Is there a whiff of inbreeding? It’s OK to share grandparents, as we know, but is this one of the secrets behind this family’s dysfunctionality? Is that the subtext of the novel’s title? Whatever. Fred was privately educated, went to Cambridge (of course) and teaches Will and Cele Latin. He and Betsy live in Devon, but the family seat is ‘Dowlands’ in Northumberland, once a sign of their gentility but now run-down and a drain on resources. It’s a good job the dad is a consultant surgeon. It’s a good job it’s that sort of universe—I wouldn’t have been surprised to meet a character from an Ian McEwan novel. Or Kate Atkinson. Or… etc. (I must stop giving up on sentences. I must stop banging on about the middle-class milieu as well. OK.)
Stuff happens as Hetta and her older brother and cousin grow up. Will, always the girls’ favourite because he’s so enthusiastic and interested in new stuff, proves himself ‘super-bright’ (Hetta’s word) and gets brilliant results in what proves to be the last year for O Levels. But he goes off the boil when studying maths and physics in the sixth form, meets perhaps unsuitable friends, becomes more awkward and argumentative, starts to drink too much…. He doesn’t fail, but he does badly and talks about not wanting to bother with university. But enter Grandpa, who coaches him in the Classics. Will gets to Cambridge with three A grades, which would be great if he’d had a personality transplant in the meantime. He’s awkward and rebellious there too, makes a friend called Harvey that Hetta hates, gets sent down for some pro-atheist, anti-religious graffiti on the Chapel wall—he tries to link himself with Shelley, who got sent down for atheist beliefs—and, basically, screws up in that small-scale way of some bright kids.
If we didn’t know that the following year he’ll be fighting for his life, we might think he’d get over it soon. But instead, doubts start to emerge in that unsystematic, patchwork kind of way things get revealed in this book. There was an uncle—it’s Cele’s mother Bell who tells her, eventually—whose death wasn’t from a climbing accident but from a fall from—guess where. And meanwhile, Cele is going through her own difficult patch. At school she’s sent to weekly sessions with an educational psychologist, and is seduced when she raeches sixteen) by the teacher who takes her there in his sports car. She gets expelled, and… it’s a good job that one of Bell’s lovers knows an ultra-sophisticated Parisian family she can teach English to. Hetta visits her there, falls in love with the son, and marvels at how open and sensible everybody seems. Not like her own family, she tells us, with its embarrassed silences and not quite unspoken irritations.
Cele isn’t the same when she comes back. At first, her return visits are the times when she and Will discover that there’s more to their relationship than childhood friendship, but in the end there is someone else—Colin, and I can’t remember the connection—that she says she isn’t serious about. But it’s enough to provoke Will into a kind of toxic rage. At Christmas he gives presents, for the first time—and it seems likely that the only reason he does it is so he can give Cele a beautifully wrapped empty box. There’s a self-pityingly poignant quotation on the gift-tag—‘Yet each man kills the thing he loves’ and the rest—and, no matter what she says, he isn’t going to be reconciled.
There are a couple of weddings. Bell marries not one of the applicants, but a dull businessman or broker with a huge Kensington flat. Syd, who had moved to Jordan for a job when Hetta was still quite young, stayed there and marries a Jordanian. She’s his second wife—as in, he’s allowed more than one. Their mother has to be philosophical about it.
And… other stuff I can’t remember just now. A modern take on Tolstoy’s famous line might be that all dysfunctional families are dysfunctional in their own way. The family I grew up in, for instance… yep, just as bad—and we weren’t even middle-class. But this isn’t about me, it’s about the Tyes. And, in spite of the highly specific (and not always fascinating) details of their lives, maybe they are an archetype. Your family and mine might not be like this… except, in their own way, they probably are. We’ll see.
This book is just not exciting enough. And, full of family details as it is, I’m never sure that I’ve remembered them all correctly. I don’t think they’re crucial—and if they turn out to be, I’ll put them right if I’ve got them wrong.
Hetta’s narrative ended before Will’s return to Cambridge before his fall. Betsy describes her own life, taking her time, up to the death of the first in the family to fall, Nat. (Both these narrators are to get another section each, after Bell has been given a chance to give her version of the story.) Betsy’s husband Fred, the children’s grandfather, is Nat’s father, but the mother was his first wife—I don’t think we’ve heard about her before—Magda. As in Part 1, the main story centres on a male character, which I suppose—but how would I know?—is Vickers’ sly way of telling us that this is just the way things are. Women get on with it while men do what they have to do. Or is Vickers telling us something slightly different? Are women of Betsy’s generation, born nearly a century ago, more used to playing second fiddle? Vickers carefully adopts the written style of somebody brought up in the 1920s and 30s, more formal, less aware that certain phrases and assumptions are from an earlier age. The male character her story centres on is Fred—and, when she isn’t dealing with him, the focus is the child he fathered, Nat.
Fred has a lot of passions in his life, and neither the Classics nor the women in his life are the most important. His real passions are his principles, and Betsy gives us some back-story about why he grew up embracing three particular isms: communism, atheism and pacifism. She jokes that his attendance at Stowe School, described by another character as a hotbed of radicalism—I’m not sure if Betsy calls it that, but it’s the sort of stock phrase she would use—is bound to have turned his head. There’s a hint of a terrible irony in one particular unexpected outcome of his pacifism: somebody’s husband, I think the one married to Betsy’s Cambridge friend—I can’t believe it really matters—routinely refers to Fred’s ‘conchie’ views as no more than cowardice. It’s his son who, if we are to believe her account, goads Nat into climbing the spire. She believes Nat wanted to prove that he was no coward….
There’s another terrible irony, and Vickers resorts to a Thomas Hardy-strength coincidence to bring out its full effect. But you need the back-story first…. Magda is Jewish, a matter of no concern to Fred when he meets her in the 1930s. She is far more exciting than Betsy, the cousin he had been so close to they’d had sex when still only in their mid-teens—sound familiar? It even happens in the same room at Dowland’s—and they marry and have a child. But something, we’re never sure what, causes a break-up and Magda arrives on Betsy’s doorstep in Cambridge to ask her to look after the child temporarily. Betsy is fine with this, because she immediately feels hugely maternal feelings towards the young Nat, and when Magda never comes back she’s fine with this too. By the time Fred eventually turns up at the end of the war, she’s the only mother Nat knows. It might not be official but, as far as she’s concerned, he’s her adopted son. Fine. And Fred moves in, which is also fine.
Their mistake is that they never tell Nat although, by the time he’s ready to go to Cambridge—yes, that’s four main characters who go there—she thinks it’s time they should. She tells Fred it’s his job to do it but, in the way of these things when there’s a Hardyesque catastrophe approaching, the right moment just never arises. And then, after a holiday, Nat suddenly seems rather distant. He misses visits, forgets to invite them to Cambridge, and… it only becomes clear after his death what the problem was. That holiday of his had been in Austria, and somehow he finds out who his real mother is. I’m sure Vickers could have found a more convincing link than a museum exhibition based on the dispersal of Jewish survivors during and after the war. Nat and his friend visit it, and the friend notices a book—which just happens to be open at a page showing Nat as a baby, above a caption confirming his full name and the name of his real mother. You couldn’t make it up. Nat realises not only that he isn’t Betsy’s child. I don’t think the exhibit mentions who his father is—and even if it does, the truth is horrifying. Fred refused to fight in a war against an enemy that was out to exterminate his mother.
Is this a shattering revelation in the book? It ought to be, but somehow it isn’t. Maybe it’s just taken too long for Vickers to get to this point—Betsy’s narrative is 90-odd pages long—and maybe we just don’t care enough about any of them. I made a joke some time ago about how Vickers seems to be writing about what she knows, and I wonder if there’s some element of memoir about these stories. Certainly, her own father was a communist like Fred, she herself worked in the WEA (Workers Education Association) just like him…. If only I could believe the rest of it contained as much truth I might be more convinced, and more moved.
Anything else? Betsy and Fred have two children together, Bertrand (after Bertrand Russell), always called Beetle after a childhood escapade, and Bell. Beetle becomes the father of Will, Hetta and Syd, and we know all about Bell. Names continue to be a thing. Bell, Christabel, was named after the Pankhurst of that name while Fred, Wilfred, was named after some other worthy. Nat’s real name is Jack, his nickname being a joke about the toad…. And there’s another coincidence relating to him. Betsy is persuaded that Cambridge, being fairly near to London, is too risky a place to bring up a baby. She moves with Nat to Dowlands—and it’s a good job she does. A ‘stray bomb’ falls on the Cambridge house, and they would both have been killed by it. Thank goodness—except Cambridge seems to have got it in for him in the end. It’s like Final Destination all over again. As for Magda… I can’t remember how she dies. Does she return to Austria just when it’s becoming lethal for Jews to be there? Not sure… but never mind. Time to read on.
As expected, a different take on events. But, for me, Bell is far too knowing about her own faults, none of which she denies. She doesn’t exactly take a pride in them, although she is very forgiving of her own selfishness and taste for the expensive. She is slightly rueful about her shabby treatment of Cele over the years, rather than remorseful—until another Hardyesque twist of fate changes all that. Clearing out her parents’ place—or is ‘Snaresnest’ her own? I forget—she happens upon a diary that Cele wrote at an absolutely crucial period in her life. What are the chances that either Bell or the former applicant, Robert, who’s helping her would find the little book, carefully hidden inside the cut-out pages of a huge tome? (It’s the sort of question I’ve been asking about the Hardy novel I’ve just finished. Don’t get me started.) Whatever, not only does her verbatim transcript of the diary pages move the story along—tell you later—it makes Bell examine her own failings as a mother for the first time in her life. Important? Yes. Plausible, convincing, persuasive? Not for me.
Anyway. Not only does Bell’s narrative offer a different take. After a lot of other stuff about her own life, she moves the Will/Cele narrative on in several different directions. And we get a different view on whether Nat really was goaded into his rash fall from the college spire. Eddie, the childhood friend (and almost certainly lover) who is the one who tells Bell about it, says Nat was never the sort of person to take any notice of self-important little Cambridge shits. (I’m paraphrasing, but he does use that sort of language. He went to university in Newcastle, and can’t be doing with that Oxbridge nonsense. I rather like Eddie.) This, the new take on Nat’s fall, has parallels not only with Will’s, but with the way different family events are subject to this sort of reinterpretation. Betsy thought she’d got it right about Nat, but it seems her judgment was clouded by her prejudice against the son of the man who used to be nasty to her husband. We all have our prejudices—which, if this was the first time I’d ever thought such a thing, would be a valuable insight. As it is… it’s OK. What we’re starting to know is that we don’t know anything. Actions have consequences, but everyone has their own view on what these are. And who’s to blame.
Some details about Will and Cele. During his ‘rustication’ from Cambridge—even Bell chokes on the self-regarding Oxbridge jargon—he stays in London with her, Bell, and her terminally dull husband Graham. Cele is there too, at least some of the time, which leads to an early crisis. Colin, the man Will had demanded she give up forever, arrives unannounced with such a strong sense of his own entitlement (to everything, not just Cele) that Bell immediately takes against his charming smile—and the rest of him. As he behaves more and more proprietorially towards Cele, Will fumes—until, when Colin calls her ‘Celandine’ he hits him with a spanner. Hardyesque detail: he has a spanner in his pocket for the job he’s been doing since losing his nice bar job through lateness and other unreliability. Vickers likes to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.) Will gets put on probation for assault… and it only transpires later, as things do in this narrative universe, that Colin had used Will’s secret nickname for her when things were better between them. Was it a coincidence? Or did he know? She hadn’t told Colin, so they decide he must have read Will’s letters.
But, perhaps inevitably, I’m jumping the gun. Before she brings about a reconciliation between Cele and Will, Vickers needs to set up a fatal obstacle. Cele leaves, gets a job as a doctor’s receptionist, and marries the doctor. So when the moment comes, Cele has to pretend that when she goes to Snaresnest to see Will, she’s just going there to do some writing. She’s only partly lying—she writes that diary that Bell finds later. This being Vickers-land, Bell tells us the contents of the diary before we know about why Cele was really there. Part of me thinks Vickers has planned these interlocking narratives really cleverly… but another part thinks it’s all a bit too fussy. We’d got the point as soon as Betsy’s narrative begins—we’re going to find things out piecemeal, and nobody’s version is reliable—and I’m wondering why it’s having to take so bloody long.
By the end of Bell’s version, we know the details of Will’s fall. And reader, in this version there’s a villain. Bell is convinced, perhaps rightly—but perhaps not, obviously—that the unlikeable Harvey is a kind of Svengali, getting Will to do things for spiteful reasons of his own. He can’t have Will as a lover, so nobody else can have him either. While Will is unsure of Cele—she’s promised to tell her doctor husband that their marriage was a mistake, but she just can’t find the right moment—Harvey insidiously sows the seeds of doubt. (The unfortunate outcomes of this kind of delay are another Hardy trope: Cele is behaving exactly like a character in the Hardy novel I’ve just finished, Eustacia in The Return of the Native, whose delay leads directly to the final crisis.) In this version, by the time Will is on top of the spire, encouraged by having seen the copy of The Night Climbers of Cambridge, a book Harvey had borrowed from Bell, he’s already fallen off the wagon—he’d given up the drink some time before—and seems to have taken acid. Will didn’t fall, he was trying to fly.
Well, maybe. What is certain is that he’s in a coma for months, and Cele leaves her job with Hubby to be by his side. She’s right not to give up on Will—after months, there’s a flicker of the eyelashes and, after more months, he can communicate in that way we all know about from cases of locked-in syndrome. (Vickers mentions the condition to remind us.) Bell—i.e. Vickers—hasn’t told us yet that he won’t survive long-term, but we gather this from the way Bell writes. Will has a full-time carer, but Cele is always with him, and if her husband doesn’t know for sure that he was never more than a temporary mistake for her, he must have a pretty good idea by now.
Meanwhile, Bell often comments on how other people see things, why they haven’t got the full picture or simply get things wrong. Fair enough. Meanwhile Betsy and Fred, Daddy and Mummy to Bell, lurk in the background. They become a little more rounded, what with Eddie’s childhood view of Betsy as a fun-loving mum, and Bell’s appraisal of Fred’s emotional limitations. Which is fair enough too. We’ve had 300 pages of this stuff, so we ought to be getting to know people a bit better by now.
Parts 4 and 5—Hetta again and Betsy again
So, as expected, Will does die. And, if we’d wondered why Bell had alerted us to a particularly awful carer in her narrative—I hadn’t mentioned her, but I had clocked that Bell had mentioned something was to be fateful about her employment and sacking—she comes back to take a heavy spanner to the finely-tuned machine of a plan that two of the characters have been carrying out…. Will, blinking and pleading, had hatched the plan himself, and the two other characters—OK, it’s Betsy and Cele—were going through with every bit of it to the last blinked letter. One of them—the police would love to know which one, because they can’t prosecute if both deny it and there’s no concrete evidence—has given Will an overdose. And then the appalling Mrs Whatever comes back with her memory of a bottle of barbiturates she’d noticed in Cele’s knicker-drawer when she was, er, looking for something she’d lost. Its good enough for the Crown Prosecution Service to go all-out for a murder charge.
If it all sounds a bit plot-bound, that’s because it is. There are other things in these sections, as there are in every other part of the book, and I’m sure I’ll come to them eventually. But, as in a recent novel by Sarah Waters, one of the subtlest writers about the psychology of women and their relationships, most of the last 50 or more pages are taken up with a police investigation and trial. (I’m referring to The Paying Guests.) For that to work, and especially for it to reach the most satisfactory outcome, the author has to do a lot of groundwork beforehand. We know about the appalling carer, and we know about the desperate guilt Cele feels for Will’s fall—those pesky unfulfilled intentions—but there are other details that need to be sorted out….
Like, do you remember that time when, as a student at Cambridge, Betsy had said quite forthrightly that she would rather choose to be hanged for a crime she hadn’t committed than for one she had? No? Of course you don’t, and neither did I until, in Cambridge for a visit, she reminds her old friend Cuthbert about it. He’s married to her best friend from Newnham College days so, when she decides to plead guilty for administering the overdose, she can write to Cele to ask the friend—who might need to check with Cuthbert—what she said. But what about those pills in Cele’s drawer? They’re an obstacle… unless the gods are on your side, and you can say how it was you who put them in there on your visits to Bell’s—that’s where the assisted suicide takes place—and that you used to take them occasionally to help you sleep. You had Cele’s room because she’d left to get a job and a husband, and you’d had the pills because your own husband—Fred, who died not long ago—didn’t take them at the end of his life because he wanted to keep his mind clear for his next Virgil translation.
So the demon carer was being truthful, but she’ got a crucial detail wrong! The old lady did it! And she’s pleading guilty! Which means there’ll be no unsympathetic jury to send her to the slammer for a long sentence, only a sympathetic judge who’ll commute the mandatory sentence to next to nothing—whereas Cele’s not-guilty plea—based on her promise to Will—if unsuccessful, would have sent her to jail for years and ruined her life! And Betsy’s plan works like a dream! And Will can lie safely next to his beloved Grandpa looking out to the sea off Northumberland for eternity!
There isn’t a dry eye in the house, obviously. And, as I might have said before, it’s a cleverly worked-out plot. But… as I’ve said half-a-dozen times—seven, in fact, I’ve just counted—Thomas Hardy-strength coincidences and lucky chances detract from the more important things that an author might want to say. At its heart, this novel is about what is, and what isn’t, important in relationships. When people get it wrong, or misunderstand one another’s motives, or delay too long in following their hearts (or whatever), at best it leads to unhappiness—all those years Betsy believed her own lack of frankness led to Nat’s terrible need to prove himself—and, at worst, disastrous consequences. And both blame and self-blame are, in the end, pretty pointless and lead to still more pain. Like, at the very end of the novel, Will’s parents won’t forgive Betsy for the assisted suicide that was all he ever wanted. As if it’s her fault—even if she’d done it which, irony of ironies, she hadn’t.
In the end, does it work? Umm… Not for me it doesn’t. I realise I haven’t even mentioned Hetta’s second narrative, in which she moves the story on as far as the immediate aftermath of Will’s death, and fills in other details about the Tye family and her own academic success. (She takes the revolutionary step, after advice, of not going to Cambridge. Guess where she goes instead? Clue: it isn’t Newcastle.) I haven’t done so, I realise—mentioned her story—because I don’t care enough. Who cares that she married the French boy Cele taught English to? Or that Hetta seems to think he’s wonderful, while the reader realises what a self-important bore he is?
The pain that Cele will have to live with for the rest of her life and Will’s parents’ no doubt lifelong inability to come to terms with Will’s death are things that ought to be gut-wrenching tragedies. But they just aren’t. Maybe—and this is a thought that has just struck me—it’s because their pain isn’t in any way centre-stage. We get the details of Hetta’s married life, as if we care. We get Betsy’s carefully-planned persuasion of Cele, in the form of a letter she writes, that she must take the rap for the so-called murder—but we don’t get Cele’s reaction, even second-hand. And all we know about Will’s parents is their refusal to let Betsy come to Dowlands to see them, ever. Vickers’ point is clear—they’re on a hiding to nothing by cutting themselves off from one of the most important people in their lives—but… meh. Silly them, we think, not, O the pathos, O the tragedy.
I’m left feeling like something of an outsider. The family secrets end up being ingredients in a far-fetched melodrama about people who aren’t in close contact enough with their own emotional needs. So they’re like everyone else, then? I remember making the point after reading Part 1, that all dysfunctional families are dysfunctional in their own way. The problem for me is that the Tyes don’t represent enough universal truths for their sad little saga to have any resonance. It’s a neatly constructed narrative, but not one I particularly recognise as compellingly real—and one that ends up getting lost in the details of a plot that’s just too convoluted. There’s a shorter, tighter novel in there, if Vickers would only get rid of some of it.