With her family in tatters, Clarke pieces together the history that led them to this point, starting with her parents meeting in Nazi-occupied Athens and moving on to her own childhood on a council estate in postwar London. Family secrets and scandals emerge, including details about her mother’s infidelities and questions over the paternity of her youngest daughter. Clarke provides enough gossip to satisfy those curious about Nicky Clarke’s glitzy life, but her memoir is also a slice of social history. She attributes her solid academic achievements to William Beveridge and free education, while Nicky achieved success in the more entrepreneurial Thatcherite era.
Norma Clarke grew up as Bill and Rena’s second child in a tiny rented flat in the Old Kent Road where there was neither room nor money nor even much appetite for books. These days she is a professor of literature, which means that when she wants to understand her Anglo-Greek family’s spectacular dysfunction she instinctively reaches for Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad. By Clarke’s reckoning, her two hairdressing brothers have become Homer’s Achilles and Agamemnon, taking it in turns to throw their weight around before retreating to sulk in their tents. The remaining siblings, along with an assortment of cousins and ancient aunts, make up a tragic chorus, commenting noisily on what has just happened, what is happening now and what will happen next... Clarke specialises in 18th-century literature, which means that she is also an expert in gossip – her beloved Pope was himself a master at dishing it out. She is happy to supply us with discreet details of Nicky’s rise and rise... In privileging cultural context over personal pathology, Clarke’s memoir belongs in the distinguished tradition of Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman and Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood.