First-time novelist O’Farrell powerfully reworks a seemingly familiar tale.
At the outset, Alice Raikes is suffering from some terrible, unexplained hurt. Impulsively she dashes from her North London home to see her sisters in Edinburgh. But while they’re picking her up at the train station, she sees something that upsets her even more and minutes later jumps back on the train to London. That night she's hit by a car, either accidentally or as the result of a suicide attempt. After this mysterious and disturbing prologue, O’Farrell proceeds to tell the story of three generations of Raikes women and their lives in the small Scottish town of North Berwick, focusing primarily on Alice. Her actions in the opening pages are actually not really atypical: Alice is impetuous and moody, unlike her precise, chilly English mother and her quiet, methodical Scots grandmother. O’Farrell constructs the saga of these three women as a series of brief, interlocking vignettes, shifting between many layers of past and present, juggling some half-dozen different viewpoints. Deeply felt but very secret pain is the attribute that unites all of these characters, even Alice’s barely glimpsed father-in-law, whose absence turns out to be a pivotal element in the story. Alice’s seeming suicide attempt is a catalyst, a stone thrown into a pool that precipitates ripples of misery that wash back into the past and forward to the future. O’Farrell is an astute observer of little behaviors, the telling fidgets and habits of everyday existence, and she's at her best when piecing these together to create a sense of a real life experienced through fiction. The complex structure works beautifully, communicating the shared and interlocking sufferings of the Raikes women through its carefully worked-out layering of narrative lines.
Often painful to read, but finally quite satisfying.