Astral Travel by Elizabeth Baines

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Reviewed by Annabel

…a lot of what I remember is not the same as what the others remember, which was partly what caused the trouble when I tried to write a novel about it all.

Astral Travel Elizabeth Baines Salt

This sentence, which closes the introduction to this novel, is so true, particularly within families. How often do we discover that our siblings or older relatives have a different view on events to how we personally recall them. This is what Jo discovers when she decides to write a novel about her family history, unearthing buried secrets.

She begins her mammoth task ten years after the death of her father; it’s taken her that long to come to terms with her feelings.

Patrick Jackson, my volatile, contradictory and entirely unfathomable father, around whom we’d always had to tiptoe.

Patrick, from a poor Irish family, met Gwen during the Second World War when he was stationed in Wales. It wasn’t a straight-forward romance: Gwen wasn’t sure for quite a time, there was another man in the frame initially. Despite never knowing much about her Patrick’s own upbringing, marry they did, but she would soon discover that Patrick’s outside face was very different to his inside one. Two daughters came, Jo, then Cathy, and later a son, David, who becomes their father’s favourite and idolises him. David will work alongside him too when Patrick finally has a measure of success.

Their childhood was impoverished, they moved frequently, and Patrick regularly squandered any money he could get his hands on. And then there were the beatings. The more outspoken Jo always tried to protect Cathy, and suffered for it, yet still always wanted to be loved by him. Her mother remained complaisant, an accomplice even, sadly a case of ‘he loves you really’.

…if anything, I was angrier with her than my father. My father I had written off as ignorant and primitive, but my mother ought to know better. Once upon a time she had wanted a career, and the stories of her life had impressed on us girls its importance, and the unfortunate unfairness of Nanny and Grandpa’s old-fashioned view of the role of women. Yet here she was now, immersed in a life of domesticity, cooking and sewing and scrubbing, creating a lovely home to cover up the truth at its heart, a home as elaborate but as neat as the lie.

Jo makes it clear that the book she is writing isn’t autobiography, it’s a novel; autofiction for sure, although she never calls it that, she acknowledges that she is an unreliable narrator. As she writes she continues to consult her mother, whom she has grown closer to since leaving home and having her own family, and to her sister Cathy. As the project continues, Gwen gradually feels compelled to fill in more gaps and put right misinterpretations. She finally opens up to Jo about the true source of Patrick’s feelings and anger, which brings understanding to Jo. Cathy had worked it out for herself long ago. We understand him at last, although we can never condone how he expressed his inner rage.

This book is beautifully constructed. As Jo’s novel within the novel progresses, like the increasing clarity in her conversations with her mother in particular, we feel that we are beginning to approach the truth and Jo’s writing takes on a more biographical (and reliable) feel. Although, she doesn’t repeat stories, the elements of revision in Jo’s writing as new versions come to light echo the novel writing and research process.

At three short of four hundred pages, Astral Travel is a longish book, but it never dragged; nor was it a purely sensational read. This fine novel was, however, emotionally gripping, Baines shows great empathy towards her characters and I was totally engrossed by it, especially in Jo’s search for the truth. A book to lose yourself in – heartily recommended.

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Annabel is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books – and deliberately didn’t describe this novel above as ‘immersive’, even though it is!

Elizabeth Baines, Astral Travel (Salt, 2020). 978-1784632199, 397 pp., paperback original.

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