Young’s (One Apple Tasted, 2008, etc.) novel traces an English family over 80 years and four generations, focusing mainly on its women’s tangled experiences of family life and motherhood.
After a prologue set in 1987, in which a teenage girl named Damson is raped in India, the novel begins in 1938 with 17-year-old Sarah, Damson’s grandmother. Energetic and determined, Sarah becomes a nurse, serving in France in World War II, and she and her husband, a doctor, later have a daughter, Melissa. In 1966, at the age of 18, Melissa meets Lord Mount-Hey, nicknamed “Munty.” The son of a greengrocer, Munty unexpectedly inherited his title at 13. He and Melissa marry and move into the dilapidated Castle Hey. Always subject to “glooms” and “giddy episodes,” Melissa becomes seriously troubled after the birth of her daughter, Damson, in 1968. Motherless since babyhood, Damson grows up independent and strong-minded; before starting medical school, she decides to take the aforementioned trip to India. She becomes pregnant as a result of the rape and decides to give the girl up for adoption. She later becomes a doctor, and 20 years later, she sees her daughter again—accidentally pregnant and asking Damson to take her baby. Damson’s decision results in the unraveling of many repressed family truths. Young shows a finely calibrated understanding of English class and gender differences and has a good sense of time and place. For example, when Munty first arrives at school after gaining his inheritance, he’s uneasy about fitting in, but his tuck hamper, bulging with food, erases all social boundaries: “His new friends seemed ravenous….Born just before or during the war, none of them had ever known anything other than rationing.” The book also effectively emphasizes the bonds, traps, and pleasures of motherhood. Sex itself seldom appeals, however, even to contemporary characters. Most seem to think of the act as something one does only to make babies and please men; a lack of it, therefore, isn’t seen as a loss. Damson, for example, avoids relationships after her rape, but “her subconscious nursery door was wide open and phantom babies streamed into her dreams.” That said, some plot elements are a bit too pat, as when Damson returns to India and confronts her rapist.
A well-written historical novel that will entertain readers with its sharp, insightful observations.