This is an impressive debut novel from an extremely talented writer. It tells the story of a young woman, Fern, who is defined by her past and her complicated relationships with her mother and beloved late grandmother. She has only confused and conflicting memories of her father, Lawrence, because of his infrequent appearances in her early life; her mother, Iris, was his mistress.
Despite the fact of his wife and first family, and despite his increasing absences, Iris’ love for Lawrence is all-consuming. She never stops holding out for his return, even after decades and blames her mischievous and occasionally malevolent mother, Ivy for driving him away by turning his daughter Fern against him.
The novel circles around Fern’s past and present, as well as the stories of her mother and grandmother, in order to fill in the unexplained gaps in the account of her own life. She warns us from the outset that her memories are unreliable and so they prove as we learn the truth of her relationship with her father, the extent of her grandmother’s malice and her mother’s self-awareness.
Central to all this is the question of magic. Ivy is a practicing ‘charmer’, spells are peppered throughout the book and the plot itself turns on the practice of magic. But do not think this is some fantasy book. It’s deeply sceptical about magic even though the story is soaked in its paraphernalia: spells, crystals, rituals. Fern’s lover Rick assures her, ‘This isn’t why your dad disappeared. Your grandmother didn’t make it happen with magic… This isn’t a fairy tale.’
Rather it’s about the effect on the characters of at least one person believing in it; an effect which ripples through the generations.
When Ivy dies, teenage Fern believes she has absorbed her spirit and, later, that she has lost it. So she adopts superstitions and rituals to try to persuade it to return:
I began to barter my way through the days. If I got from the chemistry lab to the art room in exactly seventy steps, it would return to me. If I held my breath on the school bus, from the park to the bicycle shop, it would return. If I could stay awake all night. If I could…
Those rituals stem from her belief in her grandmother’s magic and echo her superstitions. But the adult Fern realises that hers have a more explicable, non-supernatural origin in grief.
‘Like mum with her gin, and Granny Ivy with her magic, I needed them. But I should have been more discreet.’
She should have been more discreet because, like her mother and grandmother, her rituals have made her strange and friends begin ‘to slink away from me, as if strangeness could be contagious’. In this way, magic as a symptom of her grandmother’s oddness becomes a cause of oddness in her daughter and granddaughter.
Holmes is at her best working through these real emotional effects of belief in magic, but I was less convinced about her depictions of the practice of it. I do not know if the spells which are threaded throughout the book are real or invented but I didn’t find them convincing. They seem to me to strive to be portentous but fall short:
Set the mix alight and breathe deeply of / the smoke it produces. / Forgetfulness will begin to enter your psyche.
There are other false notes in some of the language of letters written from Ivy to her own sister in the 1940s following their terminal falling-out. In one she writes about the changes of the future ‘when time has carved new faces for us both’ which seems an unlikely phrase to be used in a letter between sisters.
These are minor niggles though, because Holmes handles language deftly and her imagery is both apt and evocative. She describes ‘varicose veins like a nest of slow worms’ and a goodnight kiss is ‘the scouring pad scrape of mum’s chapped lips against my forehead’.
The motif of a ballerina in a music box begins feeling clichéd but takes a surprising and macabre turn. She imagines the ballerina, ‘Eyes wide and searching for the cracks that will bring the light. Buried alive.’
This story is about burying things and hiding things: feelings, memories, and uncomfortable truths but it’s also about secret love affairs. Fern mocks her mistress mother for allowing herself to be ‘tucked away in your toy box until he was ready to take you out to play’. We discover however that Fern has her own way of tucking herself in her own box.
At the same time as hiding inside boxes, the characters live on islands, real and metaphoric (clearly, although not identified, the Channel Islands). Iris’ lover, Lawrence, appears from and disappears to the mainland and Ivy has to relocate to the neighbouring island after her act of betrayal. Fern escapes to the mainland but is drawn back. The islands and the sea between them separate the characters physically and emotionally.
Despite her best efforts to remain separate, the adult Fern and her now-alcoholic mother are thrown together again into a snippy, resentful life as Iris becomes increasingly frail and Fern moves back home. There is a good deal of humour in their arguments: Fern snatches a glass of gin from her mother’s hands, Iris kicks her and tries to snatch it back. Fern pulls faces; Iris sulks. She’s ‘lovely,’ concerned, cunning, dismissive and greedy for alcohol – often at the same time. They laugh, insult each other, and somehow come to terms with each other’s failings.
In that bleakly funny vein, the opening to the chapter about Granny Ivy’s death made me laugh.
I was twelve when Granny Ivy died and gave herself the ultimate final say during a huge row with my mother. Mum was furious with her for months afterwards.
The relationship between Fern and Iris is complicated mix of love and irritation, warmth and resentment. Jealous of a heart-shaped pebble Lawrence gives to the young Fern on a day trip to the beach, Iris takes it from when her daughter is asleep.
If Ivy’s spell-making and potions began giving the family outsider status, it’s Iris’ rejection of the norms of marriage which ensures it.
She accepts Lawrence’s double life, only once asking him if he is married and, instead of forcing him to confess, permits him to remain silent. The kiss that follows is hugely symbolic.
…that kiss was a farewell to all the harsh mornings that would never be. Your wrinkles written on your face and crumbs around your mouth. Turning your pillow over with discreet pity, to bury your fallen hair. Looking down at my hands in the sink, reddened and rough from soap powder, and wrapped around your underpants. That future was no longer mine to experience.
And so I laughed with a joy that came from being given the freedom to love you outside reality…
Decades later, Iris can’t tell if she had made the wrong choice. She and Lawrence never spoke of it again because ‘it wouldn’t have changed anything.’ But she wonders,
‘What if all you’d needed was for me to imprison you with words, not set you free with silence.’
Fern learns not to make the same mistake with her own illicit love and forces a choice. An optimistic sign to end the novel, hinting that a vicious circle of deceit and mistrust that has bound the three generations of women has finally been broken.