Cousins by Salley Vickers

‘We most of us secretly desire, I suspect, to return to the conditions of childhood, where there are plenty of questions about life but not, on the whole, questions about how to live. It’s the questions about how to live that are so flummoxing.’

‘Cousins’ is told through the voices of three generations of Tye women, their narrative spanning from the Second World War to the present. There’s the young and innocent bookworm Hetta, in awe of her older brother Will and cousin Cecelia; the free-spirited Bell, mother to Cecelia who’s never been much good at it; and Betsy, their kindhearted and perceptive Grandmother.

At the centre of their gravity is Will Tye, charismatic but headstrong, prone to outbursts of anger yet fiercely loyal. Hetta is devoted to her older brother, thrilled when she is permitted to play with him and their cousin Cecelia, whom everyone knows as Cele. We steadily learn that the closeness between Cele and Will is not platonic; in their mid-teens, the two become lovers – a clandestine relationship that is never treated as such, never depicted as a transgression. After all, their Grandparents are first cousins and have lived a long and largely happy life together.

It’s clear from the start that something horrendous will befall Will – the narrative opens with Hetta and her parents receiving a phone call, rushing off to Cambridge in the middle of the night. What has happened – and why – becomes clear, but the narrative hands us small slices of truth at a time. These fragments are steadily pieced together throughout the novel, each woman offering up their versions of history.

Some parts of the narrative are beautiful; the characters vividly drawn – with all their quirks and foibles, all their failings – they are depicted as human. I loved the depiction of the eccentric Grandpa, a staunch communist, a conscientious objector during the war who obsessed with translating the Aeneid and imparting his political and social convictions onto his future generations. Cecelia – a character who we only ever experience second hand – is portrayed as beautiful, enigmatic, fragile, yet in other ways, strong. The depictions of her suffering with mental illness and obsessive compulsive disorder are well-written, her intense loyalty to Will and the vulnerability this entails is moving. Keeping her voice removed from the tale preserves her impenetrability – she’s a character we want to know more of, yet are denied the chance to hear her own version of events – beyond that of fragments in letters and diaries.

The weaving in and out of different moments in time was largely well-executed, and added depth and dimension to what is almost an epic family tale.

Where the story disappoints is that it doesn’t quite achieve the status of an epic family tale. Too much that happens seems extraneous, the three women trying to recall a vast depth of family history, much of which is never touched upon again – characters that pop up without much purpose only to disappear again, long-winded recollections of events that bear little relation anything else. Whereas the characterisation was largely strong, I found it hard to like Will – very little of what we’re shown redeems him as a character, and because we know of his accident right from the start, it doesn’t pack as big a punch as it could have done when we find out the circumstances behind it all. It was hard to feel attached to him at all, or to care what his eventual fate would be. Subsequently, it was hard to really understand the affect he had on everyone around him.

The ripple effects of history is a strong theme throughout the narrative – a concept that, in theory, is a brilliant one. After all, blood is blood – and those ties are thicker than water. It’s fascinating how certain circumstances mirror themselves throughout generations, how certain characteristics and patterns of behaviour are passed down over time. The problem with it in this book was that it felt a bit too contrived, all too convenient. In a book where a lot of the characters felt very authentic, some of the events that unfolded were just too implausible.

There are undoubtedly great things about this book; I would say it is strong on characterisation, lacking in a coherent plot. Nevertheless, there are some lovely passages – and in light of my frustrations about the lack of overall coherency within the narrative, this is perhaps a pertinent one.

‘Theo, when he speaks of music, speaks often of silence. He is in love, he says, with gaps, with the speaking spaces in a musical score. It’s a subject where our interests meet because I am fascinated by the gaps made by people and by the gaps in people, and how these gaps get filled, sometimes to our detriment … So much of this story has to do with gaps. I hope I see them more clearly now.’

[I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in return for an honest review.]


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