How It Was by Janet Ellis

Paperback review by Annabel

How it Was Janet Ellis

I had been reading and loving the late Clive James’ last book, an anthology of his writing on Philip Larkin (reviewed here by Karen), when up he popped again in the next book on my reading pile. Janet Ellis has taken the title for her second novel from the end of his poem Home is so sad, and uses it as the novel’s epigraph too:

You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

Although the poem was written in 1958, and How It Was is mainly set in the 1970s, family life did not change that much in leafy suburbia. The setting is a village in Kent where the Deacon family lives. Dad Michael, Mum Marion, teenaged daughter Sarah and younger son Eddie. They live an uneventful life, well, until Marion, who is stifled as a wife and mother, changes everything.

The novel begins years later though with a framing narrative, as Marion sits at the bedside of Michael who is dying. It is clear that their relationship is not what it was, there is an estrangement, and Marion isn’t really there by choice. She has brought a bag of photos, letters and stuff with her and seems determined to rake up the past by almost taunting the fading Michael with them pulled randomly from the bag. The memories they bring back for Marion lead us back in the timeline to the 1970s, and we also get to see ‘how it was’ through the diary of Sarah. Marion was searching for a lost sock when she found it…

My hand closed around a little book, leather-bound: Sarah Jane Deacon PRIVATE DIARY. Keep out. If I hadn’t had time that day, I wouldn’t have opened it, but the fates cleared the way. I wasn’t busy. I had nothing to do but read it. That’s how it was.

From this point the narrative mostly alternates between Marion, both now and then, Sarah’s dated diary entries from the 1970s, and chapters following Eddie then and Michael’s memories too. We soon see that Marion’s relationship with her daughter was also very strained and about to become even more so once Adrian Cavanagh comes into their lives.

Marion had had a brief affair with a man from her choir when Sarah was little, it was brought to an abrupt end by circumstances after just a handful of trysts. Marion had begun to fall for him, but as that memory dims, we feel that having experienced that illicit thrill, that Marion would do it again, for respite from her increasingly stifling life with the well-meaning Michael.

Adrian is Michael’s exact opposite, an artist, married with a daughter in Sarah’s year (whom Sarah would love to be friends with), but he is also a profligate womaniser who likes to drink and party. He takes to painting in the field at the end of their road, parking his car in an annoying spot, meeting Marion and Sarah separately. Once Marion reads this in Sarah’s diary, the two are set in competition against each other, and it can only ever end badly – but not in the way you might expect!

This dysfunctional relationship between mother and daughter is at the core of the novel, even more so than her increasingly creaking marriage to Michael. Sarah, as much as she appears to love her little brother, is jealous that he is Marion’s favourite, and frankly, is on her mother’s case. Marion is soon wrapped up in her plans for a dirty weekend with Adrian, roping in her best friend Bridget as an alibi, and putting her neighbour Sheila off the scent of the impending scandal she seems to sense.

Ellis skilfully weaves between the timelines, slowly revealing events and building up the picture of her flawed protagonist. There’s not much to like about Marion, who comes over as having more than a hint of a Bette Davis character about her, she’s selfish and wilful, a poor cook, lost as a stay-at-home mother. Sarah has suffered from her mother’s inattention at a time when, on the cusp of womanhood, she needs her mother more again. I wondered whether work might have given Marion back some joy in her family, but in those days a lot of middle-class women didn’t work or return to work after having their kids. The character development of the women was so well done, Michael’s back-story felt a little underdone in comparison. Adrian is a means to an end and doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things, but he did come over as a little stereotypical – it would be difficult to make him otherwise. These are but minor quibbles though.

I liked the way that Marion matter-of-factly tells us ‘How it was’, which reminded me of the mantra Kurt Vonnegut gave to Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse 5 – ‘So it goes’ – both phrases have that sense of inevitability about them, and that does permeate through this novel too.

After writing a full-blown and well-received historical novel, Ellis proves she can write in more than one time period. She evokes Larkin’s sad home relocated to the early 1970s so well, from the decor and products of the time to the suburban attitudes, many of which I could recognise, if not experienced, from my own childhood. I’ve yet to read Ellis’s debut, The Butcher’s Hook, but can heartily recommend How It Was, and I look forward to reading her next book.

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Janet Ellis, How It Was (Two Roads, 2020). 978-1473625211, 448pp., paperback.

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