Separation by Sally Emerson

Reviewed by Harriet

Separation Sally EmersonI have to admit I’d never heard of Sally Emerson before the publishers offered me a couple of their recent reprints. Though she’s till around and still writing, her six novels were published between 1980 and 2001; since then she has concentrated on travel writing, journalism and anthologising. Separation was published in 1992, and I really loved it.

From what I can judge, family life and parenthood seem often to form the focus of Emerson’s novels. Here we have new parents Tom and Amanda Richardson. Tom is a respected academic, a cosmologist, and Amanda a successful management consultant. Their marriage has been a happy one and they are delighted, if somewhat confused, by the appearance in their lives of Kate, who is four months old as the novel begins. Amanda ‘loves this baby more than anything, and the love is so intense it is hurting her, in the way that love can hurt even before the lover deliberately hurts you’. But it’s time for Amanda to go back to work, so she is forced to hand Kate over to a nanny, the young and beautiful but somewhat mysterious Sarah Adams. Sarah takes good and loving care of Kate, but she has a secret. She has a daughter of her own, six-year-old Alice, who lives with her father George on the other side of London. Following a messy and painful separation, George, a rich and powerful man, has forbidden Sarah to see the daughter she loves above all else in the world. For Alice, too, the separation is unbearably painful – she’s got a case packed and hidden under her bed for when her mother comes to fetch her, but this never happens. Meanwhile she hates her father’s new live-in girlfriend, and the feeling seems pretty much mutual though the shallow Tricia makes some feeble efforts to befriend her.

What Emerson does so brilliantly here is to capture the complexity of the feelings we refer to as love. There’s certainly a lot of it in here but it’s rarely straightforward, at least when it’s between the adults. Amanda and Tom have always had a good marriage, but the appearance of Kate has changed the chemistry in the relationship. Tom loves Kate but is unsure how he is meant to look after her, and feels subtly threatened both by his wife’s adoration of the child and by her determination to carry on with her job rather then move with him to Cambridge, where he’s been offered a professorship. He also finds himself attracted to the enigmatic Sarah. Amanda, torn like all working mothers by the demands of her career and the overriding desire to spend all her time with her daughter, loves Tom but is pleased and flattered by the attentions of George Adams. George himself (who has no idea that his ex-wife is Amanda’s nanny) tells Amanda that he still loves Sarah, but he has convinced himself that she’s not a fit mother for Alice and treats her with the utmost cruelty as a result. The only pure, uncomplicated love here is that between the mothers and their children, but the circumstances mean that it can’t be unmixed with pain and indeed tragedy.

This is a novel of immense subtlety and perceptiveness. The story is told from the multiple points of view of all the characters, including the baby Kate, whose attempts to make sense of the strange new world around her are wonderfully conveyed in short, concise chapters. Emerson’s writing manages to be both beautifully spare and deeply profound. Here’s a quotation to give you a sense of what it’s like:

Kate wakes crying in the night and Amanda gets up at once (noting that Tom doesn’t even stir). She picks up Kate, light as a violin, and strokes her, pats her, until she is still. The two of them go to the window, and peer through at the world outside, watching the cool dawn rise. The strangeness of early morning clings around the minutes and it seems that Kate belongs to this period of day, after the blackness but before the gaudiness of daylight. Mother and daughter, awake in the sleeping house, are part of an older world, older than the bricks of this house, older than the oldest paintings, older than clocks.
The two lovers go to bed, beside the giant’s body. Amanda caresses her baby, and feeds her from her breasts, and as Kate feeds her face enlarges with a dopey, sleepy content.

All six of Emerson’s novels are scheduled for publication: four have appeared already and another two are forthcoming. She’s clearly an important writer who well deserves this second outing, and I can’t wait to read more of her work.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Sally Emerson, Separation (Quartet Books, 2017). 978-0704374379, 270pp., paperback.

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