Reviewed by Victoria
I’m not the biggest fan of prologues but I have to hand it to Isabel Ashdown for making pretty good use of hers. It’s November 1994 and Wren and her husband, Rob, are watching the first ever National Lottery draw on the television, their baby daughter, Phoebe, between them. As the numbers are called out, Rob accepts good-naturedly that he hasn’t won anything, but Wren stays silent. She has recognised the numbers and realised that she’s won the jackpot. But in that same moment,
‘she knows she won’t tell him. Not now, not tomorrow, not ten years from today. Instead, she’ll quietly pack her bags, and, when the moment is right, she’ll leave.’
The story begins twenty years on from that momentous decision. A journalist researching the first lottery winners has tracked Wren down without her knowledge, and he approaches her family, determined to get his story, unaware of the trouble he is about to stir up by passing on her address. Since Wren left, Rob has been living with their best friend, Laura, who took Wren’s place as mother to Phoebe. Laura and Rob met as children and became inseparable; when they went to the same university, they met Wren there and the friendship developed into an unusually close threesome. Rob fell for Wren hard, and Laura pursued her own romantic entanglements but felt nourished by her close companionship with the others. It was natural that in the aftermath of Wren’s abandonment, Rob should turn to Laura to calm him, after the first wave of angry, self-destructive sleeping around had passed over, and then natural that they should pair up. Though there is an odd sense of incestuousness about their relationship, as if the erotic dimension bloomed late between them out of necessity and survival instinct.
Wren, meanwhile, has been living in a tiny cottage on the North Cornwall coast, alone apart from her dogs. The only person she speaks to regularly is the guy who runs the coffee stall on the beach. Wren is safe in her haven but not entirely fulfilled. It is clear that she carries a great deal of guilt about her past actions, but equally evident that her flight was also provoked by a fierce and unquenchable thirst for freedom, a bid for survival that she knew would be inexplicable to anyone else. And yet when Laura turns up on her doorstep, demanding to know the reasons why she left, some sort of explanation is going to be necessary.
Isabel Ashdown spends a wealth of narrative on her characters, gradually building up a detailed, densely-textured picture of their different natures and this time and attention is really the heart of the story. She follows the characters through their conjoined pasts and tenderly witnesses the confusions of the present as they all coincide once again. The focus of the novel is essentially on Wren and Laura, one extreme introvert, one extreme extrovert, yet women who do love each other deeply. She also delves into the backgrounds of her protagonists, particularly when it comes to Wren and her relationship with her mother. Wren has been left to nannies and neglected from the moment she could be independent, but is in no way bitter towards her mother; instead, she understands her motivation. ‘She likes her own space – grown-up space, she’d say. I guess some women aren’t made of maternal stuff’. It’s implicit that Wren won’t judge her because she resembles her.
Motherhood is the quiet underlying focus of the story, the way it can produce wildly differing reactions in women – from Wren’s horror of it, to Laura’s unfulfilled longing for a child, to twenty-year-old Phoebe, who we suspect from the start of the novel to be pregnant. It’s also a novel about secrets and their gradual revealing, as all three people are keeping them, one way or another. The point of view shifts regularly between them in a way that maintains tension for the reader, who knows some of what is going on – enough to wonder how the future will play out – but not all.
This is an elegant and well-balanced novel that includes a clever twist and a satisfying conclusion. It was at times for me a little quiet and a little slow, a little bland in its exposition. But it was put together with style and will be a big hit with any reader who really enjoys the slow reveal and the story of a three-way friendship that stretches across time.
Isabel Ashdown, Flight (Myriad Editions: London, 2015) 978-1908434609, 320 pp., paperback original.
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