This time four years ago I posted a review of Elizabeth Baines’ short story collection, Used to Be, which I thoroughly enjoyed making me keen to read her new book, Astral Travel. Framed as a novel within a novel, this immersive story follows an author as she attempts to understand her complicated father by writing her family’s history, discovering that her interpretation may be further from the truth than she understands.
A decade after her father’s death, Jo begins to write about her peripatetic, impoverished childhood and her vain attempts to protect her younger sister from their regular beatings, hindered by her mother’s apparent appeasement of their father. Gwen first met Patrick when she was a bright young girl, intent on a career. Despite doubts on her side, they marry but Gwen soon discovers that Patrick’s charming, generous public face is very different from the one he shows at home. As their daughters grow older, Patrick directs his anger at them, particularly infuriated by Jo’s smart intelligence and tendency to answer back. When a son is born, Patrick ignores him until the likeness between them becomes apparent when David becomes the favourite. As the years march on, Patrick buys the large house he’s always hankered after, David working alongside him in his engineering firm. Cathy stays close to home but Jo moves on, relieved to leave her father behind but still sore from the damage he’s done. Hoping to finally put her difficult childhood to rest, she decides to tell the story of her father, reconstructing a version of events from memories, family stories and deductions, a version with which not everyone in the family agrees.
Baines’ novel explores the long shadow cast by an abusive childhood through Jo’s perspective. Jo frequently reminds us that she’s an unreliable narrator, unfolding events as she interprets them. Her parents’ bitter rows are a constant soundtrack to her childhood, yet her mother never steps in to defend her daughters, insisting that Jo provokes their father and attempting to persuade her to placate him. As Jo shows what she’s written to both her mother and Cathy, never to David who she identifies with Patrick, gaps are filled in and alternative interpretations offered until her mother finally reveals the unacknowledged source of Patrick’s frustration and fury, something which it seemed Cathy had understood all along. Baines’ carefully constructed novel is deeply engrossing, Jo’s slow, painful understanding of her father convincingly done. By the end of it, she finally has her answer and with it some peace as the tyrannical Patrick emerges as a desperately unhappy man, made miserable by the expectations of a society beset by prejudice. A fine novel, written with great skill and empathy.
Salt Publishing: Cromer 9781784632199 397 pages Paperback
If you’d like a copy of Astral Travel, perhaps you’d consider ordering direct from Salt Publishing who are facing the challenges of another lockdown and will be struggling. I’m sure they’d appreciate it.