'an invisible companion'
I read and enjoyed Eaves' novel, Nothing To Be Afraid Of, many years ago and can remember very little about it other than it was set around a production of the Tempest in London and involved an earthquake. That's not his fault though, I'm a forgetful chap, so much so that it took me a while to realise why his name struck a chord when I got a copy of his latest novel in the post. The mention of Gerard Woodward in the bumf got my attention. The prospect of finding another novel that deals as brilliantly with family as Woodward's trilogy of novels about the Joneses (August, I'll Go To Bed At Noon and A Curious Earth) is a tantalising one. You have to be careful chasing those kind of thrills however, even Woodward didn't manage to hit the heights consistently with those three novels, and whilst there were moments when I thought this novel might ignite I'm afraid it never quite did for me.
The Allden family live in a suburb of Bath. Don and Emily have four children: Liz, Clive, Lotte and Benjamin, each with their own distinct character although it is the unique Clive who really stands out, apple of his mother's eye despite his difficulties.
The idea of having a favourite horrified her, but there it was. Many years later, when he returned to visit her and she could barely mumble his name - when names no longer meant anything - a part of Emily still knew this, and though by middle age Clive himself fumed with neglect, nevertheless she clung to him. In the chilled passageway beneath the framed butterflies, she turned to her other grown-up children, saying, 'I love this one, I can't help it. It's true.'
That paragraph may well give you an idea of the dizzying effect of Eaves' structure. This is not a linear novel and even when it is it seems to jump about like the stylus on a warped vinyl record. We do follow the family as it grows and develops, see the children grow and mature, witness the strains and struggles for 'A family need witnesses to its adventures to make them real.' But we are also heading towards a future where Emily's mind has begun to deteriorate and the family reassemble around her dementia. I found the sheer number of characters disorientating in the opening third and I'm not sure I ever recovered. Perhaps this is because Eaves was drawing on figures from his own past (and making assumptions about what might be communicated with the scantest details), or because he wanted to mimic the effects of memory itself, but the results remain the same. Boyfriends and girlfriends, neighbours, affairs; maybe I wasn't paying close enough attention but there was so much going on and we seemed to drop in and out of it with such speed that this may be a book to be better appreciated on a second read. We only get one shot at life however and most books I read only get one shot at me.
Amongst all that confusion however there were some sparkling moments. Clive as I said is an interesting character, gifted and unique, burdened with the hopes of not just his doting mother but his family as a whole who make sacrifices so that he may be accorded opportunities none of the others will enjoy. Whilst he grows up to become 'the captive of his promise and his disdain' he also has the insight when young to recognise just what family is, even at its most flawed.
Each of them had failings. Not one saw those failings as Clive did - rationally, dispassionately, fairly. Whether as parents or sibling rivals, they were individually flawed; but together - like a scene of tribal earnestness, a fete or a fayre, glimpsed romantically from the deep cover of the hawthorn that straggled over the garage - they were good, an ideal almost; necessary, and at the same time vulnerable to change. Clive did not like to think about what would happen if they disappeared or moved. If a bomb dropped, or anyone left home.
Don as the philandering patriarch has a fair burden of guilt to carry. He is the kind of man who manages a sort of gentle, insidious cruelty with affairs that are blithely accepted and a general demeanour that takes little account of anyone's thoughts but his own.
...Don's cruelty was no more than the perpetuation, in extremis, of a familiar trait. It was not even cruelty, come to that, which requires a degree of premeditation. It was simply that he could not bring himself wholly to believe in other people. It was a mystery to him that they should think differently about anything, or do anything he wouldn't want to do.
When Emily reaches the stage where she requires real care Don might be said to atone for that past, accepting the burden without question and trying as best he can to care for her. The way in which her illness brings the scattered family back together again is as haphazard as the way in which they lived together. They all seem to find or see something different.
Leaning in close, they found an image of themselves flickering in their mother's eyes and gathered what they could - a whispered word, a shiver - to its flame.
The youngest of them, Benjamin, is the one who works hardest to make sense of their life together, desperately trying to bring some kind of unity from the chaos and draw some wisdom from within it. When he fails he realises the real lesson is that 'you shouldn't go looking for significance: it wasn't ahead or behind. If it was anywhere, it was by your side, an invisible companion.' And perhaps that's why I failed to do this novel justice. Reading with an eye towards drawing a conclusion at the end may well have blinded me to what was happening in the moment.