I spotted Angela Jackson’s The Darlings in the publishing schedules back in April 2020 and liked the look of it. Like so many other titles, her novel fell foul of the pandemic which threw a multitude of publishing dates up in the air, this one landing in bookshops a year or so after it should have. It tells the story of the eponymous married couple whose world is rocked over the course of nine months by the arrival of a much longed for child and an affair.
She adjusted her skirt, and his mouth remembered a snog at the end-of-term school disco, when she had whirled his hair and his heart around her forefinger
Mark was a mess before Sadie literally picked him up of the floor covered in vomit from yet another bender. Aged fifteen, his best friend was killed in a freak accident involving a cricket bat wielded by Mark, then his parents were both killed in a car crash. Capable, competent Sadie saved him and put him back together again although still dogged by panic-induced sugar binges. Installed in a copywriting job he loathes, Mark has ambitions to be a stand-up comedian but Sadie is finally pregnant after several rounds of anxiety-inducing IVF and keen for him to give up his dreams. When he bumps into Ruby at a gallery he and Sadie visit on their way to their anniversary meal he can’t get her out of his mind. She’s his fifteen-year-old crush, there when Angus was felled at the cricket match. Despite the safe, stable life Sadie has enabled, Mark embarks on an affair, heedless of the advice of his mates. He’s convinced himself that it’s Ruby who truly knows him but the affair sends him spiralling out of control again. Nine months later, it’s Christmas Day and the lives of the Darlings have been turned upside down.
At the dizzy stomach-churning height of an affair, at the point where one is led by hedonistic risk-taking, lovers leave tiny clues for friends and colleagues to pick up and puzzle over
Jackson’s novel is a straightforward story of domestic life, upended by infidelity and betrayal. Mark’s childhood experiences put a particular spin on a narrative that could easily have fallen into cliché, exploring the chaotic effects of childhood trauma and engaging our sympathy for him. Quite a feat given that sleeping with someone else when your wife’s pregnant with the child she’s been desperate to conceive is usually grounds for disliking a character. Jackson is smart on social observation, occasionally acerbic, but more often portraying her characters with a warm affection and there’s a gentle humour running through her novel. An engrossing, enjoyable read, the kind with which to while away a relaxing day off. Coincidentally, I read The Darlings the week Jackson’s editor, Scott Pack announced he was bowing out of publishing. In her acknowledgements, she mentions Pack, thanking him for his kindness and wisdom. Let’s hope her next editor will offer the same encouragement which clearly paid off well with this one.
Eye Books: Much Wenlock 9781785631337 240 pages Paperback