When I was little, I remember suggesting to my mother that as an adult I lived at the house across the field from our own.
“That way,” I reasoned, “you can come and catch spiders but I’ll still have my own house.”
My logic remains flawless even if the vision is no longer so appealing. Attempting to recreate one’s childhood full-time isn’t healthy, and ancestral pile aside, living in (or that close to) one’s childhood home seems a bit – well, iffy. If not for you, then certainly for your spouse. A house my husband has admired since childhood recently came on the market in the village he grew up in. He salivated over it and looked at me like a hopefully puppy.
“We’d essentially be recreating your life,” I objected.
“I know. Great, isn’t it.”
(Reader, we did not view it. It was more expensive than diamonds created by the freshest weeping teardrops of blue moon fairies.)
Perhaps he would have been less keen had he read The Kindness, a novel in which a return to the childhood home does not go well. Julian, desperate to recreate an idyllic country childhood that was all warm kitchens and river swims, plucks his wife and daughter from London to his childhood home, until then lost due to financial hardship, and even renovates to exactly recreate the home he had as a child. The familial results are not good. But the writing is gorgeous. Julian’s joy at getting his home back again is exquisitely rendered through sensuous detail – delight in every chip, flake of paint, dapple of shade, lilt of river water. As someone rather attached to her childhood home (if the top didn’t give it away) I can appreciate the deep emotional pull of the trees you’ve seen at every stage of growth, the paving stones rich with memories of early trips and toys, familiar paths, views and walks. It’s a childhood-pastoral fantasy mash-up.
Samson sets this in opposition to Julia, his wife’s, own sensory paradise – a horticultural business she runs, delighting in the plants, the fruit, the soil, the glasshouse… Samson brings us into the joy of nurturing, the heaviness of damp, growing plants, the dirt in the fingernails, the ache in the muscles. For what is primarily an emotional thriller, The Kindness is a deeply physical book.
But I should revert to these emotions, for this whole home/place angle is only a backdrop to the main story of, in the words of the Independent’s review ‘parental loss’. After a brief account of an episode in Julia’s past we join Julian, alone at this treasured house, from which all traces of his beloved daughter Mira have been removed. Why? What happened? Samson uncovers gently, sinuously, playing with timescale like a virtuoso. It’s tragic, slow, deeply felt.
But when you are fully sure that you have the measure of this book, it stops in its stately tracks and makes an almighty heaving shift in direction and narrator. From then on, nothing is certain. This happens (arguably too) late in the game, leaving you briefly disoriented. The shift in narrator is initially unwelcome but it soon injects the novel with a new energy, from which point it continues to kink and shake with renewed vigour. Samson has an uncanny ability of judging just what you’re thinking, at which point she throws in another blindside – something very difficult to do without being obvious and tricksy. It feels, as twists should, that the kaleidoscope view of the true action is simply adjusting each time.
This is a tale of love and family and with a good ending that escapes cheesiness through a realness that strikes true. Samson’s creation of baby/toddler Mira is pitch-perfect, her account of parental love perfectly depicted, her exploration of loss (see Julian’s shameful obsession with a shoe, the only thing he has left of Mira and kept in a secret drawer, lovingly felt and examined each day) spot on.
It’s beautiful and readable. But I do have a niggle. It wasn’t as memorable as it should have been. Writing this review I think it’s excellent, but the truth was that I forgot I’d read it a week later and was rather surprised to see it on my kindle. Perhaps because it’s a sensual, feeling sort of book rather than one which your mind has to grapple with, and so is more of an immediate, not lingering, pleasure. This isn’t high art for the ancestral pile, but it’s great stuff. Much better than that ghastly watercolour cover would have you believe.