This is the fifth Rachel Billington book I've read, and I've come to the conclusion that she writes much better when dealing with 'issues' and current affairs, rather than when recounting the lives of self-pitying members of the upper and upper-middle-classes. This novel has big advantages over the last Billington I read, namely that it has a plot, and addresses some interesting issues in society, including the integrity of politicians, and the pains endured by those suffering from mental illness.
The upper-class Barr siblings are thrown into disarray when they hear that brilliant, wild Charlie, the youngest son in the family, has been found hanging from a tree outside the mental hospital where he was a patient. In fact, the truth is more complicated - Charlie is not dead (they got the wrong man) but is on the run, fearing that enemies are after him, after he has revealed a complex tale of political skulduggery and ill-treatment of East European prostitutes to his brother Leo, a Labour Minister, and to a journalist. As the Barr family struggle to find Charlie and get him help, either in hospital or at home, all react differently to the situation. Roland, the oldest (a criminal barrister whose happy married life is a front hiding much more complicated passions) has always envied and disliked Charlie, and simply wants him out of the way. Leo, who's used information given him by Charlie to expose a police officer and another Labour minister, feels a responsibility for his brother but also fears Charlie may have not given him reliable evidence - and now his career is on the line. He's also in love with Roland's wife Maggie, who is in love with him but feels she can't leave Roland for her children's sake. Bill, the third son, a Catholic priest (who was given up for adoption at the age of three months, and has only recently met his birth family) deals with the practicalities of getting Charlie proper treatment, and caring for his wife Lizzie, a prostitute and former drug addict who Charlie married in a wild attempt to do good. Lizzie just wants Charlie home safe, so that they can make a go of their strange marriage, and dreams of 'going clean' and getting a decent job. And Portia, the youngest child, finds that Charlie's wild escapades give her the freedom to put away her resentment of a family who never really loved her, and to try to help Lizzie, while committing to a happy relationship of her own and to her work with a Mexican women's charity. Meanwhile, Charlie is convinced someone is out to get him - but is this true, or a paranoid fantasy? And the Barr parents, Imogen, a petulant aristocrat and former model, and Esmond, a former top lawyer, are both approaching death and only partially aware of what's going on, as they prepare for their own ends.
There were some very interesting parts to this novel. I enjoyed particularly reading about Father Bill the Catholic priest, given up for adoption so young, and about his faith and hard work. The material about mental illness was moving and interesting, and I found Charlie an engaging character, and his relationship with Lizzie rather touching. I also found Portia's story, and how she manages to move from being a lonely girl, still upset her mother didn't love her, to a woman in a happy and constructive relationship, heartwarming. And Billington is very perceptive about sibling rivalries and loyalties. However, there were some aspects of the book that I felt didn't really work. I would have liked to know more about Leo's political career, and why he was prepared to put it on the line because of what Charlie told him (and we never get the full details about how Charlie got the information to Leo). I found Maggie a drip, and her relationship with Roland hard to understand - her 'on off' relationship with Leo was also infuriating - I wanted to scream at them to make their minds up. Roland's heartache and sexual confusion was well depicted, but I couldn't work out what he felt for Maggie (and why he'd married her) and his relationship with the Moroccan boy Didi came across as mawkish. Imogen was a preposterous character - and would any mother, however temporarily in the grip of religious mania, give their own baby up for adoption just because they felt it would be a kind act? I also found the whole political side of the story confusing. We never learnt quite what the secret that the prostitute Ileana had to tell Leo was, how Charlie got his information in the first place, or who was after Charlie. And how crazy was Charlie? Only intermittently so, and usually able to hold down a job? Again, Billington didn't tell us. Billington also is no Amanda Craig (or even Sebastian Faulks) - with the exception of Father Bill, she was uneasy portraying any characters who weren't upper middle class professionals. Lizzie was an appealing figure but very two-dimensional and we never learnt enough about her life (why she became a prostitute, for example). And the journalists and doctors that bobbed up every now and them appeared to have come from a weak TV drama. Really, the siblings (particularly Charlie, Roland, Portia and Bill) were the only characters I was interested in.
I did enjoy the novel in many ways, and despite the odd Billington purple passages ('she waved her arms like tentacles in a black sea' 'I'll be sick', cried Maggie, you make me sick' - and indeed she was sick in the sink') thought it was largely well written. But I felt it didn't ultimately deliver its promise as a novel reflecting our current times, and as such wouldn't read it again. Three and a half stars.