A muddled first novel, from England, about love and war’s aftermath, told by alternating narrators: an early-19th-century soldier and a late-20th-century teenager.
Stephen Fairhurst was a British officer, fighting in the Napoleonic Wars, until he lost a leg at Waterloo. We meet him in Lancashire in 1819. His arrangement to marry an eligible widow has just collapsed (she couldn’t deal with the leg), but her unmarried sister Lucy Durward is less squeamish, and she and Stephen correspond at length after he returns to his Suffolk home, Kersey Hall. Stephen writes about the “perfect” love he experienced in Spain, between battles. After he was ordered north, the nymph-like Catalina became a nun, placing their daughter in an orphanage. Meanwhile, some 150 years later, Anna Ware, not quite 16, arrives at Kersey Hall to stay with her uncle. Her mother has decamped to Spain (aha!) with her latest boyfriend. Anna, already sexually experienced, feels unhappy and neglected until she’s shown hospitality by her bohemian neighbors, Eva and Theo, professional photographers. Anna, distantly related to the Fairhursts, is given a bunch of Stephen’s letters by the gallery owner mounting her neighbors’ latest exhibit. The strain of tying Anna to Stephen is apparent; would this high-school dropout even understand his high-flown prose? The book never achieves the symmetry of A.S. Byatt’s similarly structured Possession. Themes of love and war also fare badly. Stephen the professional soldier agonizes over the needless killing of civilians at the Peterloo Massacre that opens the novel, but to no purpose, while his idyll with Catalina is as insubstantial as a mirage. Anna, a minor, has consensual sex with Theo, old enough to be her grandfather. The consequences are messy but unexplored; Anna must cope with a broken heart, while Theo gets off with a scolding from Eva, his bisexual lover.
An ambitious debut, poorly executed.