I enjoyed Polly Samson’s first novel, Out of the Picture, very much. She’s also written two collections of short stories one of which – the cleverly linked Perfect Lives which turned out to be about anything but – I was particularly taken with. She’s not one of those authors whose name is on everyone’s lips although The Kindness seems to have gone down well. If I had to compare her to other writers in that time-honoured way that publishers love so much, I’d say we were in Julie Myerson territory: perceptive portrayals of family life, unafraid to explore the darker side with a few pleasing twists. It’s the kind of novel that it’s hard not to gulp down: we’re set up for a dark secret by the book’s blurb which keeps incorrigibly nosy readers like me eagerly turning the pages.
It opens in 1989 with Julia meeting Julian. She’s flying her husband’s Harris hawk and he – struggling up the hill and struck by her beauty – falls instantly for her. Already on the brink of leaving her controlling husband, Julia moves in with Julian and soon the two are besotted. Eight years later, Julian, recovering from a debilitating illness, is grief-stricken. Mira, the couple’s daughter, has been desperately ill. His beloved Firdaws, the childhood home which the family has reclaimed, has been stripped of all traces of both his daughter and Julia. As he tries to find a way of dealing with what has happened – first batting away all attempts to help him, then giving in to the ministrations of his insistent ex-girlfriend – he remembers his life with Julia, telling their story to himself and to us. Five years later, Julia picks up the narrative, throwing an entirely new and different light on events. The novel ends in 2012 with a reunion.
Samson’s novel is a triumph of clever plotting. Several times throughout her narrative I congratulated myself on realising what the promised ‘explosive secret’ was only to have the carpet pulled from beneath my feet. Switching her narrative from Julian to Julia is a masterstroke. Samson smoothly slips small, telling details into the tangle of misunderstandings and misinterpretations that she’s deftly woven. Her writing is often quite striking, vividly conjuring up the heat of summer and the gorgeous decoration with which Julia transforms the couple’s dingy London flat. A thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing read, then. Just one complaint, and it’s a small one: the main protagonists’ names – a little too much of the ‘made for each other for me’.