When the willfully unattached Iris Lockhart receives a call about a great aunt she never met, her loner lifestyle gets woven into a much larger family drama.
Iris may harbor a secret forbidden passion, but in her real-life affairs she prefers a detached approach. Therefore, when a call comes from the soon-to-close Cauldstone Hospital, asking what she would like to do with an elderly relative she didn’t know existed, she is faced with more intimacy than she’s comfortable with. Her great-aunt Esme, mistakenly called “Euphemia” by the staff, has been hospitalized for more than 60 years for various vague psychiatric disorders, at one point it seems for simply not wanting her hair to be cut. After Iris tries to place her, and recoils from the horrors of the recommended halfway house, she takes her into her own flat, carved out of the Scottish family’s original grand home, on a trial basis. Over the course of one long weekend, that trial reveals truths about why Esme was hospitalized and why Iris never heard of her, and also delves into Iris’s fear of intimacy as her married lover, Luke, teeters on the edge of leaving his wife. Relying on a complex structure that recalls O’Farrell’s earlier work (My Lover’s Lover, 2003, etc.), most of the book’s present action is focused on Iris’s day-to-day functioning. But this contemporary action is merely the finale of a drama that’s been going on since Esme’s youth in India. That story unfolds primarily through a series of inner monologues. Esme enjoys rediscovering some memories but avoids others, while her sister Kitty, now institutionalized with Alzheimer’s, runs through old mistakes and excuses that still haunt her in her dementia. At times, these competing voices, each with a different take on exactly what happened, can be confusing, but by the novel’s surprising ending, each has become clear.
Despite occasional opacity, this slow-building, impressionistic work amply rewards dedicated readers with a moving human drama.