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An odd, sketchy attempt to re-create girlhood life in post--WW II England, by a far-reaching yet tentative first-novelist. Isobel Cuthbert and younger sister Caro are in a family situation that seems to go only from bad to worse. Their father ran off with another woman, and Iris, their manipulative, uncaring mother, has never really recovered from his departure. Upon deciding to remarry, Iris deliberately removes her children from their beloved seaside home in Cornwall (where their paternal grandparents also live) and relocates in London, where in rapid succession she finds and marries Frank (a strict Catholic) and sends Isobel and Caro off to a convent boarding school. Meanwhile, Frank's teenage niece Ursula, who comes with him as a package deal, is a monster: a junior sophisticate with a heart of steel who has been abandoned by her own mother and begrudges Caro and especially Isobel the scant affection and family life they have. Ursula, too, is sent to the convent, but what should be the focal point of the narrative--the event at the school that changes Isobel and Ursula's lives forever--comes as a far-fetched afterthought: In the blink of an eye it emerges that Ursula is a bisexual seductress who's been carrying on with Father Ryan (who, after a drunken tryst with Ursula, ran over and killed Isobel's best friend Stella's mother) and also with a nun. When Sister Gabriel commits suicide, only Isobel and Stella know that, though Ursula is hardly an innocent, it was their own machinations--motivated by revenge for her mother's death on Stella's part and payback for years of torture on Isobel's--that led to this particular tragedy. The final line provides another freakish twist: To believe that, as adults, Isobel and Stella are living as lovers in Cornwall takes an unfathomable leap of faith. Too much atmosphere, too little story--at least of the convincingly motivated kind.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1995
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's