Reviewed by Harriet
Set in the early 2000s, this is the story of three middle-class couples who have decided to abandon city life in Bristol and make an attempt to live off the land. They have bought Frith, a dilapidated farmhouse with a collection of large outbuildings and converted it into three separate homes to live in with their ever increasing families. Their living quarters are separate but all celebrations and family occasions are enjoyed together. The idea is a fine one, but cracks start to appear – disagreements, infidelities – can their idyll survive them?
So far so conventional, and probably not something I would necessarily have wanted to read. But this is a novel by the endlessly inventive Sadie Jones, who has chosen to tell the story through the eyes of the two oldest children, born within days of each other, and seven years old when the novel begins. Amy is the daughter of not-very successful actor Adam and kind, caring Harriet, and Lan (Lachlan) the son of homeopath Gail, who left his ‘boring’ father soon after he was born and now is married to sturdy, reliable Jim. Both have younger siblings, and third couple, Martin and Rani, have two; one of them is Bill, a destructive little child who Amy and Lan hate. In fact they don’t have much time for any of the younger children because they are so wrapped up in each other. And for small children their lives could hardly be more delightful. They have total freedom to roam the surrounding countryside, splashing through streams, climbing the hay in the barn, or on the woodpile, sometimes with painful results:
Me and Amy have always got splinters, nearly every day. We can both sterilise a needle with a match. Then we hold it flat, like Jim showed us, and brush the splinter up. We don’t dig the needle in because that hurts like shit, Amy says. We do the little kids’ splinters too. They always cry.
The grown-ups don’t know everything they get up to, but they trust that the kids will be sensible and safe, which they usually are, though climbing onto the roof of the barn is pretty risky. Every day they are learning more about the countryside and the creatures that inhabit it, and they enjoy their home life too, with the parties and the music and the food. At one such party, in the first chapter, Jones manages to tell the reader the back story by means of a device which does seem a little contrived: ‘“Mum”, I say, “will you tell the Story?”’. This often-repeated ritual offers everyone a comforting version of the great good fortune of finding Frith, and all the work that went in to making it such a comfortable and cosy home for them all. So far so idyllic, and the chapter ends with Lan’s confident assertion that ‘we’re never, ever, ever, leaving. It belongs to us and it is all ours’.
It’s entertaining to see how the children misinterpret things they’ve been told – they believe that Finbar, the hermit-like lodger, had polio in St Lucia, when in fact he is bipolar and was in St Lukes. But as the years go by, the children report observations that the reader can interpret even though the kids can’t. Cracks certainly appear in the idyll, and one of them is the matter of money. Adam has basically put in most of the finance but can no longer afford the mortgage and wants to convert a derelict cottage into a holiday let. There’s definite opposition to this plan from some quarters, but it gets done anyway, leading to one of the most hilariously tragic episodes when the first ever guests, initially overly impressed with such a lovely rural life, lose their rather fragile little son after sending him off to play with Amy and Lan. Their reaction is reported by Amy with great fascination: ‘The Guest Parents switch from happy to completely out of control’. Then there’s the fact that Adam and Gail are clearly having an affair, something the kids completely fail to recognise – though Lan, by now a bit older, is very disturbed by seeing his mother and Adam with their mouths glued together.
Time passes, and by the final chapters the children have reached puberty and started secondary school. They are a bit shy with each other, but never question the fact that they are, and always will be, a pair. But, as Gail tells Amy, ‘Dreams change’. And changes do come, as perhaps is inevitable. Will Amy and Lan stay friends forever? That’s up to the reader to decide.
In general I am a bit dubious about child narrators. I didn’t get on well with Emma Donaghue’s Room, finding the little boy’s voice intensely irritating and unconvincing, though the book was much celebrated and made an excellent film. But I had no problem at all with Amy and Lan, who are portrayed with great wit and great compassion. Their narrative voices are not easily distinguishable – I often had to check to see who was speaking – though it becomes clear that Lan is the sensitive, gentle one and Amy is tougher and more outgoing. Their similarity is not surprising considering they have been raised pretty much as twins. Jones has done a magnificent job of showing exactly what’s going on with the adults through two pairs of uncomprehending eyes. There’s a great moment early on when all the inhabitants of the Frith are picnicking in a field, and a wheelie bin is dragged up full of trapped rats who are going to be released into the wild. The rats are squeaking and the bin is shaking. ‘“I bet they’re eating each other”, says one of the children, “or having sex”’. Indeed.
I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Sadie Jones, and this was no exception. For a review of one of her earlier novels on Shiny, see here.
Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books and once lived in a sort of commune in the West Country where she didn’t feel too much like a trapped rat.
Sadie Jones, Amy and Lan (Chatto & Windus, 2022). 978-1784744816, 320pp., hardback.
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