I started Salley Vickers’ Cousins a few days before the American Presidential election. It’s a bit of a doorstep, a literary family saga if you will, and I was in dire need of something to distract me from constantly looking at the polls. I finished it the day after the election but this is a book blog not a political one so that’s enough of that. Vickers’ novel tells the story of three generations of the Tyes through the voices of three women as one of them tries to reconstruct what happened to the young man each of them loves dearly: grandson to one, brother and nephew to the others.
Hetta Tye is looking back to 1994, the year that her brother Will fell while attempting to climb the spire of Kings College, Cambridge, damaging himself horribly. She wants to try to understand exactly what happened, calling upon her grandmother and her aunt Bell to help her fill in the many gaps in her knowledge. Hetta remembers the phone call that summoned the family to Will’s bedside where he lay in a coma, her grandparents Betsy and Fred arriving from Ely before she and her parents could get there, and the distress of her cousin Cele, clasping his hand in hers. Theirs is a convoluted family: Betsy and Fred are cousins whose love story looked set to repeat itself in Will and Cele. As Hetta, Betsy and Bell tell their versions of the family story, they also tell their own. Hetta has always been in the shadow of her rebellious, fiercely intelligent brother set, it seems, on going off the rails. Bell has spent her life caught up in her own beauty, neglecting her daughter Cele who finds comfort with Betsy and Will. Fiercely protective of her grandchildren, Betsy’s life with the idealistic Fred has not been quite the idyll it seemed. Stretching back to the Second World War, Vickers’ novel flashes back and forth leading us to the tragic events of 1994 and its consequences.
There are no literary fireworks in Vickers’ novel, just straightforward prose, presented in a straightforward style which feels a little old-fashioned at times but suits the complexity of this novel which explores politics, morality and the nature of family through the tangled history of the Tyes. As with any backward looking narrative, those telling the story are unreliable, given to the ‘prophet hindsight’ as Bell’s lover nicely puts it, or subject to the vagaries of an ageing memory as Betsy reminds us. There’s a welcome undercurrent of humour: ‘I didn’t quite spill wine down my front because I was wearing my cream cashmere’ gives you an idea of Bell’s character when faced with a startling revelation by Cele and Fred’s use of a nappy change – enforced by his wife – to lecture his colleagues on gender equality is priceless. As Vickers draws the novel towards its conclusion, she neatly ties in any loose ends, referring back to points made long ago. With its secrets, coincidences, overlapping connections and inter-marriage, the Tye family history is somewhat more convoluted than the average – you’ll need your wits about you to keep up at times – but their story repays attention. Not the escapism I might have been looking for but it took my mind somewhere other than the news for a while and for that I’m grateful.