Reviewed by Victoria Best
Margaret Forster is one of those authors who have been steadily producing first class fiction for decades without ever getting much in the way of recognition for it. Is this because her novels often deal with domestic situations, you have to wonder? If so, she proves how fatally reductive that sort of dismissal remains. Her psychological insight and her cool, lucid style reveal familiar human dramas to be rich in layers and paradox. The Unknown Bridesmaid is her 27th novel, but if you haven’t read her before, it’s a pretty good place to start.
Julia is a middle-aged psychologist who spends most of her times assessing young girls who are problem cases. Some are violent, some keep running away, some take to their beds. Julia plays cat and mouse with them in her sessions, ready to parry whatever insolence or defensiveness comes out of their mouths with another question they can’t help but answer. She does this steadfastly, calmly, an experienced and thoughtful woman with compassion for her charges and a steely eye on the forces that provoke their crimes.
But it becomes apparent immediately that Julia has more in common with her troubled girls that we might think. Back when she was growing up, Julia found herself tangled up with the catastrophes that beset her older cousin, pretty, glowing Iris. Julia is an only child who is repeatedly dragged in the wake of her angry, ascerbic mother. When she’s invited to be a bridesmaid for her cousin’s wedding, her mother isn’t happy and makes a lot of fuss about the cost involved. Julia’s small pleasures are often spoiled in this way, and the dominant rule of her childhood is ‘Best not to ask anything.’ One of the deftest portraits in this accomplished novel is of Julia’s mother, who is tough and unsentimental to the point of neglecting her daughter, but who is not without a rough sympathy that always comes too little and too late. The chronic problems of the mother-daughter relationship are buried in a thousand small acts of emotional unavailability, showing how there need never be anything like outright abuse for a relationship to fail in essential ways.
When her cousin’s new husband is killed in action, a chain of events is set in motion that Julia, consigned to the garden to play (‘What did it mean, “play”? With what? With whom?) is forced to fall back on her insufficient resources to work out. And when further tragedy strikes and Julia fears that she may be in some way responsible, the secret of her actions is trapped inside her, slowly poisoning her over the years from within.
For me, the brilliance of this novel is the way it explores what happens when people fear they are terribly in the wrong. Julia grows up haunted by her secret; it makes her perceive her own world through a filter of guilt that is almost intolerable and must eventually force her to find some release in acts of transgressive behaviour. What Forster shows is how those ‘bad’ acts look so different to people on the receiving end than they do to those who perpetrate them. It is clear that Julia cannot articulate the reasons for her behaviour, but what seems callous and cruel to others is merely an essential survival strategy for her. In some way that original wrongdoing eclipses all the others that follow it, they are only remnants of shrapnel from a long-ago explosion. Repeatedly punctuating Julia’s story are all the fragments of stories that belong to the children Julia treats. They form uncanny echoes of Julia’s own past, while complicating for the reader over and again the simple judgements that we might otherwise be encouraged to make about out-of-control children.
Julia is not a sympathetic character, in the sense that has come to dominate the term – she does not embody the sort of ideal acts of behaviour and insight that we may not be capable of ourselves but like to see others performing. She is a damaged person and as such one who cannot always see the damage she does others. But she is a deeply interesting person, flawed in her rich humanity, and that’s the sort of character I’d much rather read about.
Margaret Forster, The Unknown Bridesmaid, (Vintage: London, 2014) 978-0-099-58192-5, 361pp., paperback.