The Kindness by Polly Samson: Oh what a tangled web we weave…

The Kindness 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’.

21 thoughts on “The Kindness by Polly Samson: Oh what a tangled web we weave…”

    1. I hope you enjoy them, Poppy. Short stories often don’t appeal to me but Samson links them all beautifully in Perfect Lives.

        1. Recent linked short story collections I would recommend are The Shore by Sara Taylor, Unforgettable by Paulette Bates Alden, Snow in May by Kseniya Melnik, and Archangel by Andrea Barrett. I hear David Mitchell does a similar thing in Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks.

          1. Susan Osborne

            I’d add Judy Chicurel’s ‘If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go’ – the title’s almost a story in itself! And going further back Melissa Bank’s The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, and Caroline Oulton’s Unsafe Attachments. Echoing Rebecca, The Shore is brilliant.

  1. I just finished reading this last week and loved it. I agree it was very cleverly plotted, with sophisticated writing. I had never heard of Samson before, but her style reminded me of Tessa Hadley and Lucy Caldwell. Thanks for recommending other books by her. My one tiny complaint would be the title: though it pops up close to the end, I think it’s a bit too subtle and doesn’t say enough about the book.

    1. Hmm.. I’ll have to go back and check that. I don’t know Lucy Caldwell’s work but spot on with Tessa Hadley which means I’ll now have to get my hands on a Caldwell novel! Thanks for the recommendation, Rebecca.

      1. It’s in the last few pages. “He felt the blood rush to his head. Julia hadn’t read his book? He’d done her the kindness of being generous in his portrayal of her treachery, so sure had he been that she would read it.” (I’d recommend Caldwell’s The Meeting Point.)

        1. Susan Osborne

          I’ve just reread it having missed it completely first time around. Very impressed with your close reading, Rebecca. And thanks for the Caldwell recommendation

    1. Susan Osborne

      Thank you, Victoria. I’d like to see her reach a wider audience – a nice spot on Watestones front-of-house tables would help, I’m sure!

  2. I picked this up at the wrong time and realised very quickly that I wasn’t going to be able to do it justice. I hope I can go back to it when I am not feeling as raw myself as I was then and give it the attention it so obviously deserves.

    1. I hope you feel you can, Alex. I have to admit, that’s not something I’m very good at, but it’s well worth a read.

    1. I think you’d probably like this, then, Fleur. Not a fan of short stories and I think I probably liked Samson’s because they seemed so closely linked that they almost read like a novel.

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