Disturbance by Marianne Kavanagh
Witness to Mike’s bouts of anger, Katie is disturbed. As are the couple’s sons: James who needs peace to study for his A levels; twelve-year-old Edward who, being autistic, goes into meltdown if the tension gets too much. When Mike’s sister Ursula arrives from Australia, she seems to make a bad situation worse.
Although a third-person narrative, the reader perceives the family dynamics from Sara’s point of view. This works brilliantly in the latter part of the novel, as the reader gradually fills in the gaps. I liked the depiction of her unravelling, and it was good to find a voice hearer given fictional space.
Unfortunately, even though I trusted this author, having enjoyed her previous novel, Should You Ask Me last year, I almost gave up on this one, as I found the first 100 pages as dull as I would in real life. Village gossip and adolescent romance turned out to be crucial to the story, but was extremely tedious when related second-hand. And I could’ve skipped Katie’s accounts of her sessions with her eccentric therapist who, I’m glad to say, turned out to be a fraud.
Other readers might be less critical. Thanks to Hodder and Stoughton for my proof copy.
Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson
Elsie feels most comfortable with Stanley initially but, over the years, although she never gives up on him, her affections shift. The catalyst might be the couple’s decision to send their elder daughter to live with an acquaintance when another baby is born. Or it might be when Stanley insists on moving his family to Cookham, where he grew up, before his work on the chapel is completed and against the wishes of his wife. But the final straw must be when Stanley, despite his love for Hilda and hers for him, abandons her for another painter, Patricia Preece.
All three women feature in Stanley Spencer’s artwork but, in Stanley and Elsie, Nicola Upson gives them a voice. And through their thoughts and feelings, we see Spencer in all his contradictory humanity: charismatic, but also exhausting; driven and idealistic, albeit somewhat naive; narcissistic but occasionally generous, thoughtful and kind. While I warmed to Elsie as a character, the novel became more interesting in the second half when Stanley, Hilda and Patricia – who, even on the day of her marriage to Stanley, sees him only as a meal ticket, her partner, Dorothy, being her one true love – are all on the path to self-destruction. Luckily for Elsie, she had another option in marriage and motherhood with a decent, albeit ordinary, man.
This is the second novel I’ve reviewed this year about a famous painter and his less famous wife. For a fictionalisation of Edward Hopper, see The Narrow Land. Thanks to publishers Duckworth for my review copy of Stanley and Elsie.