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The Ties that Bind
on 4 June 2014
It is 1976 in London, and a heatwave hits the city. Set against this larger scene is the story of the Riordans of Gillerton Road, whose 3 adult children have flown the proverbial nest, but who are brought back together to the family home when their father, the recently retired, normally reticent and reliable Robert goes round the corner for a newspaper and inexplicably disappears. His wife, Gretta, calls on their children in desperation, while maintaining that there was nothing amiss to bring about this sudden departure. As the narrator helpfully explains partway in the novel, "strange weather brings out strange behaviour, As a Bunsen burner applied to a crucible will bring about an exchange of electrons, the division of some compounds and the unification of others, so a heatwave will act upon people. It lays them bare, it wears down their guard. They start behaving not unusually but unguardedly. They act not so much out of character but deep within it."
With this conceit, Farrell delves into the complex relationships in the family and the secrets that simultaneously bind and sever their bonds with one another. Without stereotyping, each of the characters are fully and convincingly fleshed out. The children, Michael Francis, the earnest underachieving eldest son, Monica, the level-headed favourite, and Aoife (pronounced Ee-Fah, the author helpfully offers only after three-quarters into the book), the wayward youngest, are so individualised, with each of their childhood backstories interwoven so tightly together, the reader shares the anxiety of their coming together after certain estrangement, and winces when misunderstandings are unresolved and divisions deepened.
I was made to feel most strongly about the estranged relationship between Monica and Aoife that is left to fester because of a suspected betrayal that is un-verified for many years. When Monica's door is literally slammed on Aoife's face, she recalls how she used to call for Monica "when she was little and Monica was minding her, their mother out somewhere, and she couldn't find her, had lost her in the house.... Monica would always come. Always. And she'd always be running. Running down the stairs to her. Running to catch her up in her arms, to hold her face against the soft wool of what she called her sweater set. I wasn't far away, she'd say, not far at all."
In such a taut novel, what felt strange to me was the surprising absence of Robert from the narrative - the character who incites the whole story - but then perhaps that makes perfect sense, because Farrell shows how sometimes a gaping hole in the family portrait forces you to examine the rest of it in greater detail in order to find the missing piece.