Reviewed by Victoria
It’s been ages since I read a good, old-fashioned family story, and although Kat Gordon’s debut novel wears the veneer of contemporary culture, set partly in a London that’s clearly based in the present day, the heart of the book is secrets and lies and reliable family dysfunction. I’ve been trying to think which authors she might be compared to, and the closest I can get is Rebecca Wells’ Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, or British author Susan Sallis (who not many people will remember now). But if you like coming-of-age novels, or those bittersweet stories in which the turbulent past gleams with nostalgia, this one is well worth your time.
When the story opens, Tallulah (Tallie) Park is 21 years old and living in a grotty bedsit in London, working for poor pay as a waitress in a nearby café. Her life seems to have drifted into a dead end, whilst she is already world-weary and jaded. When the phone rings and she is told that her father is in a critical condition in hospital after a heart attack, she is shocked and alarmed but not for the reasons we might expect. She has been estranged from him for the past five years, and now she is uncertain whether or not she wants to resume their relationship. In the end, the pull of family ties becomes too strong to ignore, and she takes her place at his bedside between her two aunts – Aunt Gillian who is soft and gentle but put-upon, and Aunt Vivienne who is hard and critical and full of old-world Hollywood glamour.
While they wait in limbo, unsure at this point whether Tallie’s father will recover, Tallie reviews her past history and her difficult family. The focal point was her formidable grandmother and the beautiful old house she lived in, where the relatives would gather for long summer months.
Our grandmother was terrifying – she towered over us, all bones and dark eyes. Her fingertips were yellow after years of smoking and she smelled like lavender with an undercurrent of mushrooms. She walked four miles every day; she didn’t believe in being ill. She never spoke to us, unless it was to tell us off, and she cleared her throat all the time, making a sound like ‘hruh’. If she wasn’t there, James said, going to hers would be great.
An only child, Tallie was particularly close to her loving and tender-hearted mother. ‘She was always able to talk me out of being angry when I was younger. She’d say something like, “This is the only point in your life you can go to the post office in a Batgirl outfit. Don’t waste it on getting upset.”’ Which was just as well as her father, a busy doctor, was always absent, and then cold and indifferent towards her on the rare occasions they were together. Tallie finds it impossible to forgive him his neglect, although it may just be his manner. When they visit her grandmother’s house, her father seems dislocated even from his own tribe, but then the aunts and uncles all have a complicated and far from harmonious relationship. Aunt Vivienne seems to hate Tallie’s mother, which Tallie finds incomprehensible, given her mother’s gentle disposition. And no one is mentioning Uncle Jack out loud, the black sheep of the family, permanently missing but the subject of many whispered conversations.
When Tallie is ten, tragedy strikes; her mother is killed in a hit-and-run accident that seems to be at least partly her father’s fault. With so many unanswered questions, and so much in her life that is insecure and confusing, Tallie begins to court trouble. Passed around the family like forgotten baggage, locked in frozen grief and ignored by her father, she acts out at the boarding school she is sent to until she pushes things too far. Now, with her father hovering on the brink of death, Tallie realises it is time to make peace finally with the past and to seek out the answers she knows must be there. It’s an opportunity for her to start afresh, and having been lost in wrongdoing and bewilderment for so long, she is at last aware how valuable that healing might be to her.
This isn’t a perfect novel; it’s overlong, as so many novels seem to be today, and the inclusion of chunks of medical information don’t always resonate with the rest of the narrative as they might. And a last tiny quibble; the title struck me as cumbersome. But it’s an engaging story and a crazy family, and Tallie’s adolescent trouble-making is vividly and convincingly depicted. When we are finally given the revelations we need, they are suitably satisfying. An intriguing debut from a young writer with a lot more books in her.
Kat Gordon, The Artificial Anatomy of Parks (Legend Press: London, 2015). 978-1785079863, 302 pp., paperback original.