There’s a puff from Patrick Gale on the jacket of Ruth Figgest’s debut. It’s not one of those slightly gushy quotes with a few too many superlatives to feel sincere. It simply says ‘Ruth Figgest knows how to make a story’ which at first may seem too far the other way but by the time I finished Magnetism it felt precisely right: this is an expertly spun story about a mother and daughter apparently locked into a dysfunctional relationship which seems to consist of a lifelong argument.
Erica and her mother live many miles apart. When she gets a call from a neighbour telling her that Caroline has died, she drops everything, catching a flight to the home she is used to visiting whenever there’s a crisis or a holiday. Her father died many years ago and her mother had long hoped that Erica would move back to Arizona from Oklahoma. Now fifty-three, divorced, childless and orphaned, Erica is left only with her mother’s despised poodle to care for. Figgest’s novel traces Erica’s story, opening with her first episode of mental illness, aged sixteen, and ending on a note of excited hope.
Such a slight synopsis makes this novel sound a little hackneyed, trite even, but what marks Magnetism out is the skill with which Figgest reels back the years, telling Erica’s story backwards, from the news of her mother’s death to her parents’ wedding when Caroline was pregnant with Erica. It’s a structure that could easily backfire if handled sloppily but Figgest is too deft for that, dropping clues and hints into Erica’s narrative which are neatly clarified later. The relationship between Erica and her mother is acutely observed and painfully dysfunctional: the hypercritical Caroline never misses an opportunity to mention Erica’s weight, smuggling diet books into the hospital after her daughter’s suicide attempt; the pubescent Erica is whisked off to the plastic surgeon for a nose job. Yet they love each other. Erica is a convincing narrator but we know, of course, there’s another side to the story, left for the reader to infer as Caroline’s character is revealed along with the difficulties she’s faced and the secrets she’s kept. All of this is underpinned with a pleasingly black humour. A very clever and satisfying piece of storytelling which ends with the hope of liberation.