London, August 2018
Joan Foster leads a double life as a period romance writer before she fakes her own death and regenerates in Terremoto, Italy. The narrative jumps back to Joan’s early life and highlights the events that led to that point: a fat-shaming mother, bullying at Brownies, a father estranged by the war and the series of romances none of which allowed her, really, to just be Joan.
A lot happens in this. The childhood and adolescent years were, for me, the stand-out sections, particularly the high school years in which she recognises that she’s won the trust and confidence of ‘friends’ by allowing herself to be the the non-threatening fat friend.
There are aspects of spiritualism that run throughout the novel, instigated by a church visit with her Aunt Lou, one of the only decent adults in Joan’s teenage life. There’s a moment in which Joan’s astral mother appears to a Spiritualist to tell Joan that she’s worried about her. If nothing else, I loved this for the confusion and awful communication that can arise between mothers and daughters in those years, particularly where Joan’s mother is depicted as her most vociferous critic.
Joan is a hundred different people throughout but her voice remains the same. It’s nice to imagine we’re like that – an unwaveringly ‘me’ voice that stays throughout the good and bad. I wondered on reflection is this an examination of the soul over the series of hurts, action and inaction.
‘Most of the time I was on the side of the optimistic caterpillar; but in my gloomiest moments I would thing, So what if I turn into a butterfly? Butterflies die too.’