A young woman dies giving birth, and the consequences are profound, as the Whitbread-winning English author shows in this endearing, funny/sad, sui generis work.
Radiant Holly Fox is dead from a blood clot. Popular Holly, so extravagantly loved by her mother Thomasina; dynamic Holly the nurse, who snared a trophy husband in young doctor Andrew Braithwaite. The Foxes are from the South, Andrew from the North, and England’s festering North/South divide is a major theme here. Andrew has little love left for the North, his doddering parents (Dolly and Toots) or his much older brother Jack, an unworldly priest who runs a bleak “experimental community” on the moors. Still, he must take the new infant north, for his own long hours make parenting impossible, and Thomasina has scandalized her upper-class, bridge-playing friends by skipping Holly’s funeral and gallivanting off to Egypt with retired general Giles, an admirer and soon-to-be lover. Andrew has no interest in the infant either, dumping it on his brother, but he has a suddenly reignited interest in Jack’s sensual, dark-skinned, ex-hippie wife Jocasta, who has bewitched both brothers. And the infant itself? Quiet little Faith serves as a Rorschach test for all and sundry, even as she finds herself appropriated by Pema, an ancient Tibetan woman, one of Jack’s residents: contingency rules. Grandparents Dolly and Toots pine for her without making contact (a comedy of errors). For the others she flickers like a will-o’-the-wisp in their consciousness; the exception is Philip, Jocasta’s lonely, 11-year-old son by a long-abandoned hippie, who steadfastly cherishes his “sister” in his fantasies (Philip is a treasure). Gardam (The Flight of the Maidens, 2001, etc.) gives her characters equal time, playing them off against each other through creative tension; this works, mostly, though the southern ladies could have been trimmed back. Love is all its guises is the driving force: sensual love, spiritual love, conjugal love; love as a salve, love as an anchor.
Gardam’s feisty characters deliver a tale that crackles with charm and energy.