Tolstoy is supposed to have said “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way“, the same can be said of family secrets, happy families have small secrets that do no harm; unhappy families seem to have secrets that can cause damage generation after generation. So it is with the two books I am writing about today.
The one I read first was Conrad and Eleanor by Jane Rogers. The two eponymous characters are scientists, they met at Cambridge, married when Eleanor fell pregnant, have four children and have been married some twenty five years. The children are all very different, but the third child, Caro is even physically different from the rest of the family.
But one quite outwardly ordinary day, Conrad fails to return from a conference in Germany. For a couple of days, Eleanor convinces herself that this is just because he missed his flight, she had the wrong day anyway or some fairly logical but unexplained reason. But soon, the continued silence, the fact that his colleagues seem perplexed by his non-appearance and her children’s concern force upon her than this is no ordinary absence.
Caro takes off to Munich in pursuit, Eleanor feels conflicted, was this the best option? But there is no stopping Caro, she will go and find him. Meanwhile, Eleanor overhears her other children discussing the possibility that she has “done away with him”.
During the course of this novel, we see both partners considering their past relationships; ones they have with other people as well as each other. The disappearance makes Eleanor review her behaviour, which has not been admirable and Conrad reviews the circumstances that have caused him to run and hide…
Professional conflict, work related stress and general busyness accounts for some of the fracture, professional jealousy also plays into the mix, and personal jealousy contributes to a fairly toxic situation. But it is not until there is a crisis on this scale that either of them take the necessary steps to resolve the failing marriage. Inertia has caused them to carry on, both on a separate trajectory that is contributing to their lack of communication plus the dreaded secret – the uncovering of which has caused a leprosy of distrust to blight the marriage, the slow deadening of feelings…
Jane Rogers has the ability to observe human frailty with a warm and insightful gaze, to impart this on to the page in a way that packs an immense punch. To pick up almost any of her novels is to enter a world of awareness into characters that may be widely different in age and circumstance from our own and to inhabit their world completely for the next three hundred or so pages. Gifted and brilliant writing.
The second novel, also by a well known writer, is Cousins by Sally Vickers. This is a book after my own heart. It speaks to me of the sort of family I know, Northumbrians root and branch, with a pedigree that goes back generations and who have lived man and boy in the same house for many, many years. Dowlands, at the start of this novel, is in the hands of Hetta’s parents having been given over to them in a rather run-down state by Hetta’s grandfather. The book is told from the point of view of three women, all related to William Tye whose devastating accident is the focal point of the opening chapter.
Hetta Tye is William’s younger sister, the older girl is called Sydella, know as Syd who lives in Jordan with her husband Omar. Hetta recounts all of the first section. Bell recounts the second section. Bell is William’s aunt, sister of his father, and mother (single) of Cecelia always called Cele. Bell is a wild card, rackety and irresponsible but with a generous heart, in the eyes of the family she finally redeems herself.
As you might imagine, from the title of the book, William, Cele and Hetta are very close, and have been for as long as anyone could remember. Cele was often, not to say always, parked with William and Hetta either at Dowlands or at the house of their grandparents, Wilfred and Bertha Tye, always know as Fred and Betsy, while Bell was off with one partner or another.
Betsy, William’s grandmother, is the narrator in the third section and the final section returns to Hetta. There are more cousins, Fred and Betsy happen to be first cousins, they have three children, the eldest is Nathaniel, he also figures in this story, although even before the beginning of the novel he has died in an accident; another uncle who has died is Fred’s older brother who was killed in action.
This may all seem rather incestuous now, but reading around from books that include The Bible and many Victorian novels, the marriage of first cousins was not thought in any way odd or unsavoury or, even, unwise until quite recently. The Tye family are in no way unique, you only have to look at many Quaker family trees to find married first cousins, and as I said, Abraham sent Isaac off to marry one of the daughters of his brother.
Consanguinity and its consequences were not recognised until the mid-twentieth century. Inbreeding increases the risk of genetic disorders which leads to a decreased biological fitness, a fact which was only studied properly fairly recently. Parents with similar genetic mutations may be unaware of and unaffected by any disorder, however their children are at a higher risk and may be susceptible. Even second cousins who marry and have children, will have given their offspring a higher level of risk than the rest of the population.
Cousins is not really about the genetic risks, but there is a definite undercurrent of family disasters being visited upon generation after generation. It is this that makes the novel so fascinating, the hidden histories that are slowly revealed, family secrets that impact one upon another. Collateral damage being how each event impacts on the rest of the group, in much the same way as a pebble thrown into a lake.
This is also a book about love and the risks that one will take, for love or through loving someone enough, or too much.