A FAMILY held together not by love but by habit are at the uncomfortable centre of this thoroughly well-written novel.
Their habit of continuing as a family is beginning to wane when they are thrown together for a family funeral — the great regenerator of old wounds.
It is a character-driven story into the heart of infidelities and bad choices from the past that have grown rank over time to mature into oddly misshapen love, disappointment and dysfunction. However, instead of being an unmitigated descent into dystopia there is this slow-burn comedy, which is idiosyncratically English.
The characters — young and old — are messed up in all sorts of ways but they are stuck together in this middleclass stew where there is acknowledgement if not affection. Argument, if not real emotional engagement.
So much of it says they don’t love each other but so much more shows they won’t quite leave each other either.
Hanif Kureishi’s line about the seduction of the greatest possible sexual encounter being powerful enough to make a man leave his wife and children freeze in the sea is played out with gender reversal by Amanda Coe as her character Sara walks out on her marriage and her two children to start a life with an enfant terrible of British theatre after falling under the spell of his lethal charms.
By the time we meet Frank, this enfant terrible has faded to a dismal growling presence.
Sara has just died. Her two children, Louise and Nigel, whom she more or less abandoned, have come to Frank’s home for the funeral.
Coe gives us a series of well-chosen set piece scenes where queasiness is at a high setting on the dramatic dial.
It is bad enough that Nigel and Louise consistently rub each other up the wrong way but Frank has no time for either of them.
As if the vanity and hubris of Frank is not hard enough to take, now that it just simmers rather than boils in his old age, his foibles are stoked up to boiling point by Mia, a beautiful young drama student, who arrives at the height of the wake to research this grand old man of letters.
She is the classic guest who stayed to dinner and becomes quite the spanner in the works.
So many chapters bring on reading yips. There is that oh-no-she’s-not-going-there feeling about so many turns that the story takes. And yet Coe doesn’t hang about forever in a moment trying to shake every possible coconut out of the tree; she moves on to fresh pastures and then it’s another, uh-oh-where-are-we-going-now?
If she was simply setting up her characters for a fall it might ring a little hollow but Coe finds depths and has compassion as well as a steely eye.
Maybe there is more compassion for some characters than others but that’s her prerogative.
Louise, the main character in the story, goes to a clairvoyant to get in touch with her dead mother.
In lesser hands this could be extremely mawkish territory but with Coe there is a lovely reasonableness to the comfort that the adult daughter draws from the visits and the little sinking feeling when the psychic tells her she can’t make their next appointment because her boyfriend is taking her to a Bon Jovi concert.
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