The Serpentine Cave: Jill Paton Walsh

★★★½

There’s always a frisson of excitement when you come across a ‘new’ book by an author you like. Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels is one of my all-time favourite novels, as many of you will probably know, and so I was excited when J gave me The Serpentine Cave, which he’d unearthed in a second-hand bookshop and which I’d never heard of before. It’s very different in spirit – a tale of quiet, private truths rather than the epic resonances of Knowledge of Angels – but it’s nevertheless a moving tale of a woman trying to piece together her identity from the fragments left behind on her mother’s death.

Marian has always defined herself in opposition to her mother Stella. While the artist Stella moves through life like a whirlwind, bringing chaos and uncertainty, ignoring bills and flying in the face of convention, Marian has sought to live modestly, to balance out by her own placidity her mother’s turbulent progress. When Stella has a stroke, Marian leaves her home and her job in Hull and comes down to the rambling house near Cambridge where her mother lives. Presently her two grown-up children, Toby and Alice, join her from London. They come to nurse, but a different kind of duty soon falls on their shoulders: that of sorting out, paying off, tidying up the detritus of a life suddenly snuffed out. And for Marian, this also proves to be a time of coming to terms with her past. First, of course, her deep resentment of her mother’s bohemian ways:

It is one thing to have been sacrificed in pursuit of the achievements of a genius; quite another to have been neglected and bundled around from place to place, to have had a fragmented education, and endlessly been put second to a duff artist. Marian could forgive her mother her childhood if her mother was brilliant; to have lived through all that for the sake of an obsessional hobby, for the sake of badly-executed daubs, filled Marian with shame.

But there are other, deeper wounds that Marian has to confront. She has never known her father – except to suppose, bitterly, that she was illegitimate – and it’s now too late to find out about this hidden half of her genetic inheritance. Or so she thinks. For, as she and Toby and Alice begin to work through Stella’s effects, some clues come to light. The portrait of a naked man, enigmatically inscribed ‘For Marian’. A number of paintings of St Ives. And the arrival of the implausibly-named Leonard Vincey, whose lifelong friendship with Stella promises, at last, to give Marian some clarity.

This is a story about memory, more than anything, and the way that two memories in particular have unwittingly shaped Marian’s life. The first is a collective memory: that of a tragic lifeboat disaster in St Ives in 1939. The community still remembers it and still stigmatises those who failed to report for duty on that terrible night, while making heroes of those who did, and died. And then there’s Marian’s own memory, a fleeting and fragmentary recollection from when she was a very small child, wandering off through a serpentine cave only to be trapped by the rising waves. Why does this memory keep returning to her? Where was she? And, most crucially, who was she with? Both events resonate throughout the novel, forming the core of Marian’s new history.

In the sections about art and about St Ives, Paton Walsh’s prose gains a luminous, painterly quality. She’s acutely sensitive to colours and forms and the play of light, and her writing captures the beauty of the Cornish coast to such an extent that I now have a burning desire to go back, to walk the coast paths, wander on the beaches, savour the smell of salt and fish and lobster-pots on the breeze. The people of St Ives come across as taciturn, hardy and yet guardedly warm: occupants of a dying way of life. And, just as she’s an astute observer of painterly detail, Paton Walsh is also a sharp cataloguer of human nature: its selfishness; loneliness; the way that old resentments eventually become part of ourselves, like oak trees growing around old stones. I enjoyed her evocation of Stella’s painting style: ‘as though the pictures formed a sort of complaint against the world … as though seeing were an act of confrontation, an act of anger, of existential rage.‘ And it’s the search to discover the source of this anger and rage which gives Marian new insights into the mysteries of her childhood.

Paton Walsh is generally an optimistic writer: although she sometimes turns up the less admirable sides of human nature, the books I’ve read all finish with the possibility of hope. This is much the same. It doesn’t resonate deep within the soul, as Knowledge of Angels does, because its injustices are on a personal and domestic scale, but it has much to say about how parents and children interact – the choices that we make for those we love – and how we can atone for our mistakes and find new meaning.

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