Inheritance by Jenny Eclair

Review by Laura Marriott, 15 October 2019

From previous reviews (Moving, Listening In) it is no surprise that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the new Jenny Eclair novel Inheritance. However, this causes one both excitement and some trepidation. What if this one is a disappointment? What if the author has gone off in a direction that the reader doesn’t want to go in?

Bel is preparing for her brother’s 50th birthday party. Being held at the old family country home of Kittiwake, Cornwall, it is looking to be an extravaganza, but to Bel and her family Kittiwake is more than just a fancy house. It holds generations of pain and secrets, that started from one tragedy many years ago and has rippled down the generations

It becomes clear early on that Bel and her brother Lance have lived very different lives. The reason is tied back to the drowning of a young boy several decades before. Wealthy American heiress Peggy Carmichael feels stifled in her life in England and her marriage. To escape the boredom she buys Kittiwake as a retreat for her and her three children. When the oldest drowns in a freak accident the family is ripped into pieces. The threads of family continue to cross over the following years through the relationship of Peggy’s other two children Natasha and Benedict.

The keys to Kittiwake are passed down through the male line. Sibling favouritism marks each set of siblings from birth, with the oldest male often taking all of the love and affection, leaving the others out in the cold. This is something that is reproduced each generation, at least until we get to Bel. As the oldest remaining male child Benedict inherits Kittiwake. This is how he comes to be holding summer Bacchanalia for a host of wealthy pals who gather wherever the party is. The character of Benedict practically fizzed off the page. He is vivacious and fun loving. Gathering people each summer in Kittiwake throughout the sixties, the moment he steps through the door the champagne starts flowing and the dancing begins. It is several months after one of these house parties that a baby is found abandoned at Kittiwake. Benedict facilitates the child’s adoption and she is absorbed into his sister’s family. This child is Bel.

It is through Benedict that Serena is introduced. Her inclusion throws class differences into sharp relief. She is used to working behind a till in a small supermarket, and the others — failed poets, stalled revolutionaries and general drifters who move from country estates to ski resorts — find her an amusing addition to their company. By her presence she highlights the class rigidity that has defined the Carmichael family, and which they keep intact long past the 60s. I particularly enjoyed Serena’s story. She yearns for more but doesn’t know exactly what or how to go about it. Serena is brave with an adventurous spirit. It was easy to both like her and feel sympathy for her trajectory. She is the only one in the novel who doesn’t have family money to fall back on, but as the last chapter so poignantly illustrates, she is the only one who really had family.

Family is often at the heart of Eclair’s novels and Inheritance is a real family saga that delves into what binds, or does not, a family together. From about a third of the way in it became very difficult to put Inheritance down. It is populated by clear, sharply drawn characters. Bel; a woman in her fifties with an unappreciative family and wardrobe that never seems to have what she needs, is frazzled and anxious as she tries desperately to be heard. Her adoptive mother Natasha couldn’t be more different. She is quiet and brittle with a viciousness about her that at times drives the plot and creates a widening gap between her and Bel. As in Listening In, Eclair has a real knack for creating fully fleshed out characters with stories and secrets of their own. They are full of humour and depth and were written with a lightness of touch that helps to make this a compelling read that makes the time fly by. 

Inheritance is a novel of how generations repeat habits, behaviours and mistakes. Gradually each piece of the story weaves together into one fluid narrative. This is an in depth, intelligent, multi-generational family saga that delves into class, love, loyalty and the history that ties people together and pushes them apart. Delicately plotted as it moves between stories and decades, Inheritance is full of piercing insights into class differences and relationships. When I finished this book it sat with me for a while; a feeling of melancholy, of a story coming full circle. Inheritance is storytelling at it’s best. Beautiful, poignant and involving until the last few chapters, which pierced my heart a little.

Laura Marriott is a historian, theatre critic, writer and poet.

Jenny Eclair, Inheritance (Sphere, 2019). 978-0751567069, 400pp., hardback.

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