Speaking of Love: A Novel Paperback – 7 Feb 2008
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What happens to families and relationships when people find it impossible to say the words, "I love you?" Fathers failing sons, mothers failing daughters, wives and husbands and boyfriends and girlfriends all creating unhappiness and pain because they just can't admit to their emotions. Iris is someone who has experienced much pain in her life, and who early on was beset by schizonphrenic periods which led to her being institutionalised and separated from her family. Her daughter Vivie wants to break free of the shackles which she perceives as her inheritance, while Matthew longs to be with her and yet fails in his attempts to tell her. It takes a special event, Iris's first public speaking event following her breakdown, for the decades of mistrust to give way to reconciliation. We leave the characters on the brink of a resolution which will require immense courage from all sides. If a family's generation gap can bravely be dissolved, then there can at last be hope for happiness.
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This is an ambitious first novel, and to be honest I wasn't entirely sure that Young quite pulled it off. For example, there were some dangers in having one of the main narrators an alcoholic (who suffered frequent memory blanks due to nights of debauchery) and another a schizophrenic who'd lost large chunks of memory due to brutal ECT therapy. What this means in practice is that the novel has some considerable holes in terms of plot. We never learn exactly what happened to Iris's mother (though Iris's later memories do give a strong clue), why Kit deserted his family having earlier promised to marry Iris, who looked after Vivie for the long periods that Iris was sick, and how Iris managed to become a professional storyteller. The character of John Dexter is a puzzlement - is he a real man that Iris once met, who become a hallucination for her, or is he a hallucination in total, and does that therefore mean that Iris was going mad much earlier than we might think? Some aspects of the story didn't seem believable - I have no idea how Iris and Vivie survived financially (could anyone really make a living as a milliner in the 1970s, particularly in the remote countryside?) and how Vivie was educated as they lived somewhere so remote - presumably Dick and Joan took her to school along with Matthew? And although we got plenty about Vivie and Matthew's childhood, there was rather a gap between this and the descriptions of their adult lives, so that I had no idea how Vivie had got to the position of having a career in advertising/marketing, and what Matthew had done in the years after he was rejected by Vivie. I would have liked a few more facts to make the story hang together a bit better. There was also the problem that Vivie came across for large sections as very unpleasant, with her laziness, drinking and tendency to abuse anyone she could: this meant that it was quite hard to sympathize with her (until the later sections of the book, when she suddenly appeared vulnerable) or to understand Matthew's obsession - I ended up feeling sorry for poor Julia, the girl Matthew had abandoned for Vivie.
However, all this taken into account I would still very much recommend this book. Young writes beautifully, with wonderful descriptive language; the descriptions of Matthew and Dick's journey from Suffolk down to Wiltshire and then on across to Wales are particularly poetic and lovely. Iris's stories inserted in the book are haunting and beautiful, and I thought the theme of storytelling, and of how it sustained Iris but also turned sinister, was well-handled. The central theme of the need for compassion was an important one, and Young also described very vividly the horrors Iris experiences when 'mad', and the relief she feels when she finally gets appropriate treatment. Overall, I thought this was a very moving depiction of enduring love and family relationships, which made a beautiful - if not always entirely satisfying - read and one I will revisit.
I would recommend readers of this book to also look at Eleanor Bailey's marvellous 'Idioglossia', another story about schizophrenia and mother-daughter relationships, told in an equally lyrical if rather contrasting style.
I have to admit that in spite of its seductive opening Angela Young's debut novel at times tested my patience. It has a well-rehearsed theme, announced in its title, its epigraph, in the blurb and in its many references to that thing called love, but for me this frequently cloyed. Yes, despite dealing with schizophrenia, mental breakdown and psychic fragility this is definitely Romantic fiction. It has a strong feel-good factor, obviously intends to spread happiness around, but is too simplistic to make a strong impact - on me, at least.
Love is a good thing and needs to be expressed. That is the message that is repeated throughout, but all three tellers whose lives dominate the book fail to articulate this, hence their suffering - and how! They are constantly caught sobbing, holding back tears or with tears streaming down faces, and yet I was totally unmoved by their predicaments. Would they have been any happier if they'd expressed their feelings?
However, I persevered to the end so the book must have had some positive qualities. One of these is in the author's use of different points of view - the story centres around Iris, the mother of Vivie, who is misallied to her husband Charles, a man of logic who frequently makes her feel as if he `had dropped an emotional sandbag on her head.' We never get Charles's version of his wife, an alcoholic who can't hold a job down, hisses frequently and has missed out on the only man who might have rescued her - the shy and retiring Matthew who never told his love until it was too late. The short chapters told in first or third person give the reader relief, as do the long stories told by the clumsy ECT victim, the mentally ill mother, Iris, whose fairy tales dominate the book.
The novel is overloaded with symbols: the colour red and the laburnum tree being the most intrusive. The laburnum always invokes the family's childhood past; it was grafted by the war veteran Dick for Iris and its endurance comforts her in her malady.
From amongst all these lost and floating people (some like Iris's potential lover Kit just fade from sight) there emerges the wise Dad, who knows all about the dangers of repression, and speaks on his author's behalf, instructs young Matthew about the best routes to travel (big symbol) and manages to extract from his son those three magic words, `I love you.'
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