A novelist always wants to know why people do things. Eleanor Anstruther’s forebears did some very strange things, and this haunting novel is her attempt to explain the apparently inexplicable. “I’d known this story in potted facts since I was a child,” she writes in her epilogue. “My father was sold to his aunt for £500.”... Her father’s mother, Enid, is the mystery at the heart of the story. Why was she such a dreadful mother? What combination of circumstances made her act as she did? She was evidently as mad as a ferret, but was she born mad, or driven to it by the expectations of her family?... Eleanor Anstruther never met this troubled woman, but she recreates her with empathy and compassion in this novel, which has been longlisted for the Desmond Elliott prize for debut fiction. Anstruther’s writing is elegant and intelligent, and the closest possible thing to a perfect explanation.
Anstruther sees past all the elegant 1920s manners to capture the primitive brutality of aristocratic tradition. There are certainly parallels with Edward St Aubyn and Gerard Woodward, who have fictionalised the history of their own troubled families, only with more savage glee. I wonder if the novel might have felt less cramped and episodic if Anstruther hadn’t shown such fidelity to real people and events. Like many exercises in family history, it ends up feeling precious and inward-looking. This isn’t helped by her antique prose style, which draws attention to itself but doesn’t always illuminate her meaning. Describing Enid’s father’s final days, she writes: “She’d witnessed her father’s gradual waltz.” Waltz towards what? Death?