#1 NEW YORK TIMESBESTSELLER LONGLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE
The novel – narrated by the protagonist from the vantage point of the future, both with the benefit of hindsight and the unreliability of memory – takes places over five nights in the mid-1980s. Lucy Barton has been in hospital for three weeks with an undiagnosed illness after having her appendix removed. She is separated from her husband and two daughters, aged five and six, whom she misses desperately. Unexpectedly, her mother, from whom she has been estranged for years, arrives at her bedside. Lucy is now a successful writer, but her mother’s presence reignites memories of her childhood – of poverty, abuse and social exclusion: “We were oddities, our family, even in that tiny rural town of Amgash, Illinois.”
You wonder if Lucy’s medical condition, undiagnosed throughout the novel, might be psychosomatic; in another setting, she could be the perfect subject for a Freudian case study on hysteria. Not only does her illness afford her nine weeks of daily visits from a kindly Jewish doctor “to whom I felt a deep attachment”, it brings her mother rushing to her bedside, with the possibility not just of reconciliation, but of cure: “Her being there, using my pet name, which I had not heard in ages, made me feel warm and liquid-filled, as though all my tension had been a solid thing and now was not.” With her mother holding vigil, Lucy is relieved of the insomnia that has plagued her in hospital: “That night I slept without waking, and in the morning my mother was sitting where she had been the day before.”
It is the silences, the ellipses in conversations that articulate the emotional truths of relationships. Lucy’s mother is unable to tell her daughter she loves her except “when your eyes are closed” and there is a quietly devastating tragedy about the way Lucy endeavours to make peace with this: “I feel that people may not understand that my mother could never say the words I love you… It was all right.” And yet this is a novel about love: about the complicated, complex love between a mother and daughter.