Despite having read only three of Salley Vickers’s earlier books, I’ve always had a soft spot for her work. I read Miss Garnet’s Angel at an impressionable age when I adored anything about Venice (as I still do), was intrigued by the romantic tension of Instances of the Number 3 (my edition had Leonardo’s Virgin and Child with St Anne on the cover: a surefire hit) and remember devouring Mr Golightly’s Holiday one Christmas beside a roaring fire. Her books always seem to have come to me at the right moment, veiled with a certain sense of enigma and spiritual mystery that has always appealed. Her new novel Cousins is cut from rather different cloth, stripping away the gentle religious undertones of these earlier novels and replacing them with a sensitive, probing exposé of a family’s secrets, unmasked in the aftermath of a terrible accident.
Phone calls late at night are always bad news. In the case of Hetta’s family, the call is to tell them that Hetta’s elder brother Will has had a terrible accident. While trying to climb the spires of King’s College Chapel at night, as part of a secret university club, he has fallen from the tower and is in a critical condition in hospital. Hetta’s parents rush to his bedside, to find their son crushed and comatose, and with them come three other women who have reason to love Will: Hetta herself, teenaged and full of mixed feelings; her grandmother Betsy; and her cousin Cele, who loves Will more than any of them. As the family’s collective attention focuses on Will, as it has so often in recent years, Hetta finds sanctuary with her grandparents – principled, intellectual Fred and loving, practical Betsy. Here she tries to come to terms with what has happened, and to understand what drove her brilliant, troubled brother to such an end.
Years later, as a middle-aged woman, Hetta once again turns her thoughts to Will. This time it’s with a purpose. In an effort to tell the true story of Will’s life, she rallies two others who have valuable insights: Betsy and Hetta’s aunt Bell, the flamboyant and frivolous younger sister of her father. As their three accounts weave together, Will’s fate turns out to be far more than a terrible accident caused by a moment’s foolishness. Instead it is the final testament to a web of family half-truths and, in particular, to the brief life of his tragic uncle Nat, Betsy’s eldest son. The action ranges from the family’s rambling old house, Dowlands, in Northumberland, to London and Cambridge, covering three generations, and Vickers weaves a tapestry which begins to feel convincingly, almost painfully real.
This is one of those books that haunts you more than you expect it to. On finishing, I accounted it a perfectly good book but not one that had made any particular impact. A day later, I’ve found it hard to stop thinking about it and even harder to put my finger on why. I think it’s because Vickers is so good at drawing you deep into this family’s predicament and showing you characters from multiple angles, and through various eyes. Ironically, considering my criticisms of Cathar, I thought that Vickers’s use of multiple first-person viewpoints worked remarkably well. That’s because she doesn’t jump around, but takes one narrator at a time, and the first-person accounts are explained by the fact that each of the characters is writing down their thoughts for Hetta. The first-person narration also helps to emphasise the raw emotion and complex feelings experienced by these three very different women, which entangles you even deeper in the thicket of family scandal.
Gripping and easy to read, this is highly recommended as the nights draw in and the weather cools. Vickers may have changed her emphasis slightly since Miss Garnet’s Angel and Mr Golightly’s Holiday, but she remains a skilled and captivating writer, maintaining the fascination of her family confession until the very last page. I really must read more of her books…
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review