Tears at the heart of existence

This is my review of Cousins by Salley Vickers.

After the accident which befalls brilliant but troubled, aptly-named Will, his sister Hetta is driven to delve for the chain of events which may have led to it, and to understand its serious repercussions for some family members. The accident is remarkably similar to that suffered years earlier by his Uncle Nat.

Sally Vickers’ approach is ambitious – instead of providing a family saga over three generations or more, she inverts the process by switching between the viewpoints of three women who recall their memories, with distinct personalities and “voices”: Hetta, her aunt Bell, and grandmother Betsy. On reflection, it requires great skill to sustain this approach, gradually revealing facts as in a detective mystery, with the added interest of describing the same situation or character from different viewpoints, some clearly mistaken, or in possession of fewer "facts" than the reader.

The author admits to “plundering and imbibing” experiences from her parents who were lifelong communists, like Betsy’s husband Fred who casually put his political beliefs before the needs of his wife and children, but Sally Vickers’ insight as a psychiatric social worker and psychoanalyst are really what give this novel its “edge”.

Most likely to appeal to readers with an interest in psychological drama in which thought-provoking comments are more important than the plot, however superficially gripping, it is probably necessary to read this a second time to absorb and reflect on all the author’s observations and how they might apply to oneself. It is hard to do this on the first reading partly because intense concentration is needed to grasp all the details, never being quite sure which are important to remember, plus this is a page-turner as regards finding out how it will end, although at times the bleak intensity of it forced me to take a break. The conclusion proves quite philosophically up-beat, perhaps an appropriate reflection of how in reality one moves from anger and denial to positive acceptance.

I agree with readers who feel there are too many characters, some of whom could have been omitted, although others on the periphery who are given such a brief mention as to be forgotten turn out to be important, which suggests they should have been developed in more depth. There often seems to be too much “telling” of details from the past, which could make the reader glaze over mentally, but for the acute perceptions and flashes of wry humour which leap off the page without warning. Although there is less of the strong sense of place to be found in some of her previous novels, the Northumberland coast and Holy Island of St. Cuthbert fame form a recurring background.

The plot is well-structured, starting with the “hook” of Hetta’s conviction that Will is going to die, but we don’t yet know why, and gathering pace to a plausible but not too predictable or neat conclusion. Since the author is clearly so interested in how family members relate to each other, I am unsure to what extent she intends us to feel that their guilt is an unnecessary burden, responsibility for Will’s accident seeming to lie mainly with “outsiders”. I was disappointed that these are portrayed as two-dimensional, almost “pantomime” villains.

Occasionally, the novel strikes too sentimental a note for my liking as when Betsy suggests that the loss of his twin sister at birth meant that “life was never quite right” for Will because of the burden of being a survivor – evident from his newborn “strangely unchildlike”, “relentless frantic wail”.

Recommended overall, including as a book group choice to provoke discussion.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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