I remember reading Hideous Kinky shortly after it was published, rewatching the film after getting back from Morocco, hoping to relive our trip, very different though it was from the one in Esther Freud’s novel which drew on her own childhood experiences. I’d also enjoyed her last novel, Mr Mac and Me, reviewed back in 2014, making me keen to read I Couldn’t Love You More which spans three generations of women, each connected to the other.
It would be best – the nuns were clear – if they kept the details of their lives to themselves
Aoife plans to leave the family farm as soon as she can, catching the ferry and travelling to London where she becomes a window dresser. There she falls for Cashel who longs to return to Ireland, saving enough from running the Brixton pub they take on to buy a farm there. Their eldest daughter follows in her mother’s footsteps, returning to London as soon as she can, finding herself a job with The Daily Express much to Aoife’s proud delight although Rosaleen neglects to tell her it’s in the post room. Her work may be dull, but Rosaleen finds herself caught up in an affair with Felix, a sculptor she meets in a Soho pub, who installs her in a Maida Vale flat. Felix seems overjoyed when she announces her pregnancy but events take a turn which leaves her desperate and alone. She does what so many Irish Catholic girls did before her and turns to the Church, taken in by nuns at a mother and baby home with no say in what happens to her daughter. In the 1990s, Kate struggles with her husband’s alcoholism, caring for six-year-old Freya while longing to find her birth mother.
As ever, I’m not sure who to be
Sadly, Freud’s tale is all too familiar but she handles it beautifully, interweaving the strands of the three women’s stories and telling Kate’s in her own voice lending it both immediacy and poignance. Aoife remains haunted by the disappearance of Rosaleen, dismissed by Cashel as ‘trouble from the start’, her determination and spirit echoing her mother’s. Rosaleen’s story plays out against a background of ’60s bohemian London in stark contrast to the draconian rules of the convent she finds herself in, the nuns seeming almost to relish the misery of the unmarried mothers they’re intent on shaming. Kate’s constant sightings of women who could be her mother bring home the pain of not entirely knowing who she is while wary of hurting her adoptive parents. So much sadness and longing is woven through this story of loss, grief and motherhood that, unusually for me, I found myself yearning for a happy ending and Freud manages that well, offering the prospect of hope and reconciliation while neatly steering clear of the saccharine.
Bloomsbury Publishing: London 9781526629906 368 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)