The Falling Thread by Adam O’Riordan

Reviewed by Harriet

Unlike some of my fellow reviewers, I tend not to seize upon debut novels. Call me a fuddy-duddy, but I usually prefer to read someone who already has a track record. I can see that this is not necessarily a good idea as second novels are often less impressive than first ones, but I can’t seem to kick the habit. Sometimes, though, a first novel catches my eye and I take a chance, as I did with The Falling Thread. Of course Adam O’Riordan does have a track record, if not in full-length fiction – two collections of poems and a short story collection – but this is not what drew me to the novel. I just liked the sound of it.

The blurb describes The Falling Thread as ‘a captivating portrait of a family through time’, and calls it ‘haunting’, both of which it definitely is. After a brief episode which is undated but evidently takes place in WW1, the novel starts in 1890 with a bored young man on a summer day. Charles Wright, back in the family home during his summer vacation from Cambridge, has taken a fancy to Hettie, the 17-year-old governess employed to teach his young sisters to play the piano. It doesn’t take long for the inevitable seduction to take place. Hettie’s subsequent morning sickness alerts Mrs Wright, and the doctor confirms that she is indeed pregnant. At this point I fully expected her to be cast out of the house, but not so (though she probably would have been if she’d been a servant rather than a governess). Instead, Mrs Wright insists that Charles marries her, and the rest of the novel explores the consequences of this decision over the next twenty-five years.

Then there are Charles’s sisters, Eloise and Tabitha. Young teenagers in 1890, they are young women next time we meet them, in 1905. Close, and fond of each other, the two have chosen different paths and interests. Eloise loves painting and drawing, and having joined the School of Art, now loves her teacher, Georges Verstreaten. She agrees to let him paint her, and enjoys the chance of looking round his interesting studio, but as time goes on starts to wonder if he will ever make a move towards her. Tabitha, meanwhile, is political. She has joined a Ladies Committee and become friends with Eileen Kiernan, a young woman from a very different social class, both of which Charles, who’s become a pompous bully, pours scorn on. For the Wrights, though not aristocrats, are a wealthy middle class family, well able to afford a number of servants, including Cook, who has been provided with young male assistants to help her with the ‘finer work’. This includes preparing ‘more complex dishes of foreign provenance’: when asked by Charles if she could undertake these, ‘she had looked at Charles as if asked to dig a privy’. His two sisters, meanwhile, are moving with the times – by the end of 1905, Tabitha has been arrested for demonstrating in the street, and Eloise, having realised that Georges is not interested in women, is setting off for an adventure overseas. 

Fast forward again to 1913. Eloise has become a painter, happily living a bohemian life, and Tabitha helps to run a mission in Manchester. But what, you may be wondering, has become of Hettie and the child she was expecting at the beginning of the novel. In 1905, we learn that he is Claude, now a teenage boy, deeply attached to his mother and in nervous awe of his father, who he addresses as Sir. This difficult relationship is clearly seen during a disastrous sailing trip on Lake Windermere, when Charles ignores the rising breeze and leads them into a dangerous situation. Hettie is appalled by his recklessness, but Charles doesn’t care – he’s looking forward to his next meeting with his beautiful mistress. This episode, and many others, typifies his attitude to his wife. He takes very little notice of Hettie, who, as the years go by, retreats further and further into her own world, living more and more in her own room, never appearing at family meals or social occasions. Sadly, neither of her two sisters-in-law seem to be interested in her, and never attempt to draw her into the social life of the family. But by 1913, she has turned to alternative methods of healing and been drawn into becoming a healer herself. Her own health has deteriorated, though the only person who seems to care is Claude: but when he urges her to see a doctor, she replies ‘Pray with me’. However, she seems by the end to have reached some kind of inner peace, based on her conviction that the material world is an illusion. How well this belief will survive the events that are revealed at the end is not disclosed.

I found this novel very moving, mostly because of the story of Hettie. Her appearances in the narrative are few and far between, and the reader learns very little of her own inner life. Very little, that is to say, is actually spelled out, but it’s not hard to guess the humiliation she suffers from being more or less ignored by everyone apart from her son. Despite – or perhaps because – of this, her sad decline was what stayed with me forcibly when I’d finished the novel. The very fact that she is so little in evidence in the narrative is a tragic enactment of what her life has become. Eloise and Tabitha, in contrast, demonstrate the possibilities newly open to women in the early twentieth century. 

It’s easy to see that Adam O’Riordan is a poet. Not that the language is particularly striking or ‘poetic’, but rather that the way the story is told, without much explanation or intrusion into the thoughts of the various characters, manages to seamlessly evoke the changing times and and their effect on the life of a family. It’s this showing rather than telling that gives the novel its haunting quality. 

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Harriet is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Read Harriet’s interview with Adam O’Riordan here.

Adam O’Riordan, The Falling Thread (Bloomsbury, 2021). 978-408856536, 260pp., hardback.

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