In her last book, the short story collection Perfect Lives (2010), Polly Samson channelled a sort of bourgeois blues, taking the detail of middle-class life as her subject for scrutiny. In her new novel we encounter Julian in a state of profound grief for his lover, Julia, and their daughter, Mira. Aimlessly inhabiting his childhood home, their absences consume him: frames without photographs, beds that no longer harbour his sleeping family - but the details of his loss are a mystery.
This novel, Samson's second, begins with a hawk named Lucifer and ends with a dog named Uriel, and uses Milton's Paradise Lost as a sort of allegorical backdrop for various idylls of middle England. Everyone in the novel is falling - falling in love, falling pregnant, falling ill or asleep. But within these altered states of consciousness characters move with reassuring realism: they make coffee and take out the dog, watch the news and pin up their hair, scratch themselves and cook meals straight out of magazines. They are propped up by objects, paraphernalia of hospital wards or doggy ephemera, occupied with trivialities, as everybody is. They are successful doctors or garden designers or publishing people.
Rampantly desiring Julia from the moment he catches sight of her on the crest of a hill with a hawk swooping above her, we learn that Julian ditched his promising academic career to look after her and their child, although she is older than he is and already married. Now he is a writer of comic histories for children, narrated by the dogs of the famous. He has built a career from "a knack for reducing history to the level of pets".
Firdaws, the family home Julian has rescued from its upstart new owners, is stuffed with stifling chintz, velvet cushions and antique clutter, its garden a "heaven on Earth" of paradisal bowers, a canopy of apple blossom over a hammock "hanging like a smile in a landscape as familiar to him as the face of his mother". Here is an intensely evocative description of English summertime: hot tar and haydust.
But for all its fairy tale scenery this is no will-o'-the-wisp of a novel. It has a surprising solidity, characters who are easy to place and whose trajectory seems fitting, such as "peace convoy Raph" who lives in a van on a verge.
Julian puts himself under the microscope when, stoned in their college digs, he offers a sample to his friend Karl, a medical student who is researching motility in human sperm. Julian is "oddly moved" by what he sees through the microscope lens: "This constellation - no, more than that, so many of them, each with its own halo as if lit from within - sparkling, darting, flickering. His very own universe composed entirely of comets. They seemed so purposeful, so bright and full of promise, that for a moment he felt sad for each and every one of them, for their urgency, for the messages they would never get to deliver."
The mysteries of conception, accidental and longed for, are at the heart of the novel, but a melancholy burden of things lost or never attained also permeates its pages.
There is, of course, a snake in the garden, a betrayal we know from the title must involve an ironic "kindness", but Samson keeps readers guessing with serpentine twists. The animal kingdom is unnervingly present, from roadkill and orphaned badgers to Julia's falconry and wasps that might induce anaphylactic shock. "Creeping night-scented jasmine" covers the leaded windows, blackthorn clogs the river, the reek of hyacinth on a former lover is sickly. Relationships sour; lovers' former lives exert an unsettling hold on the present. Julian's leafy arbour is torn apart by childhood cancer.
Samson treats this difficult subject with candour and compassion. She also captures the general bittersweetness of parenthood; as Julian watches his baby daughter learn to walk he experiences "the feeling of slight loss that quite shamed him as she made it triumphantly across the room".
There are gorgeously sensuous descriptions of tangled gardens and of equally prickly flirtations that characters accidentally snag themselves on. Relationships of Gothic complication are pruned into order by clever plotting. The novel's effortlessness, its readability, sweeps everything in its wake, sometimes steering perilously close to romantic cliche - a beautiful heart-shaped padlock, the ominous talisman of Julia and Julian's love, for example - belying Samson's storytelling gifts.
Even at moments of high drama the book possesses an inner languor along with its gentle humour and warmth. Its characters take long soaks in the bath, tussle between the sheets, and loll in hammocks. This is a book to relax into, without worrying too much about whether the protagonists look like real people, or just look like the characters in novels.
by Polly Samson
- Canvas / Telegraph