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A poignant exploration of family relationships
on 18 November 2015
The measured prose of Sue Eckstein’s second novel, published in 2011, serves to emphasise the loss that the literary world suffered with her early death, aged 54, in 2013. Eckstein juggled her writing with an academic career in medical ethics and humanities. This book won the People's Book Prize, 2012-13.
The book intercuts between the record of a woman’s therapy sessions and the story of Julia Rosenthal, an anthropologist, who is looking back at her childhood and her relationships with her parents and brother Max, and at her own relationship with her daughter Susanna, a textile designer, whose childhood was spent with Max whilst he mother was living and working in Africa. Gradually the links between the two stories are shown and the relationship between the two women becomes evident. In a cleverly-constructed addition, Susanna’s opinion of her mother and Max are revealed in a weekend supplement article ‘Relatively speaking’ that presents unconventional families. For once, the therapy sessions sound genuine and reveal the range of emotions that the woman experiences when sensitively pressed for answers.
Julia’s mother was withdrawn and suffered a series of mental breakdowns whilst her father, an eminent surgeon, was extremely introverted – happiest when working until his drinking led to his compulsory retirement. The marriage was not a happy one, Max slept in a cupboard to avoid the frequent parental arguments. Eckstein’s drawing of character and dialogue is superb, perhaps in part due to her experience of writing radio plays. Not least of these is Julia’s paternal grandfather who comes from a family of eminent German doctors whose driving ambition irreparably damaged her son and his wife.
Julia’s memories are stimulated by returning to her childhood home and finding that it is now owned by someone who remembers her from her schooldays. This allows Julia the slightly unlikely opportunity to wander around the house, remembering more each time she opens another door.
The construction of the book allows the reader to know more than Julia about her parents and their families and as their stories are told the true horrors of their experiences are revealed. In contrast to his rather neurotic sister, Max is at peace with the world, having set aside academic and musical success to help the less well off in society, live in a commune and teach at a Steiner school. The differences in perspective of their childhood and teenage years is revealingly brought out in exchanges between the siblings.
The author provides just enough detail to allow the reader to understand from where Julia and her brother’s adult behavioural characteristics have originated without explaining everything. The ending is especially well-conceived, the characters of the solicitor and his secretary, though fleeting, are crafted with the same degree of understanding as everyone else in the book.
Julia’s mother worked as an interpreter but the plural of the title also refers to the reader’s interpretations of the characters of three generations of this damaged family based upon the information that the author cleverly lays out. The confusion that some reviews describe parallels that of Julia herself as she tries to make sense of her life and how it was influenced by those around her. Not least, she is motivated by the need to ensure that her relationship with her own daughter is not similarly damaged.
This is a poignant story that is especially moving in its descriptions of life in Europe before and during the war, and of how experiences within and outside the home come to influence our behavior and attitudes. I will certainly look out for the author’s debut novel ‘The Cloths of Heaven’ and am grateful to the publishers, Myriad Editions, for bringing this book to the attention of the reading public.