This is a story of Isobel, and it starts way before she was born, when the first living things were forming. The beginning chapter continues to describe how her forefathers, the Fairfax, settles in the village, with roads that are named after trees.
Most of the story centres around 16 year-old Isobel, her brother Charles, her father Gordon and her Aunt Vinny. Like many of Atkinson’s other books, the story flip-flops between flashbacks and present, but luckily it was easy to follow, although a friend tried reading it and couldn’t get past the first chapter describing the beginning of time.
Isobel was given the story that her mother left when she was young. Her mother, Elisa, just walked into the woods and never return, leaving two young children to be taken care of by her Grandmother (The widow) and Aunt. Her father left soon after. When her grandmother died, her aunt has to take in a boarder to make ends meet, in addition to looking after the family grocery store.
Isobel and Charles are very curious about their mother and try to search for clues of her presence before around the house. But they are not very successful. They wait patiently for her return. Atkinson brings to life vividly the thoughts of a sixteen year old, her relationship between her friends, her school, her neighbours. Behind every character is a story waiting to be discovered. One just needs to be patient and go with the flow. Atkinson writes without the end in mind, so it’s no point rushing through to the end, but savor it nice and slow, like masticating on a juicy piece of steak.
I was amused to see how the author brings in snippets from literature books. Fairfax from Jane Eyre, and there were even mention of the mad first wife. Then there is Mr Rice, the lecherous boarder who is a salesman, and whom Isobel wishes he could turn into a giant insect (from Frank Kafka’s Metamorphosis).
As the story of 16 year-old Isobel is set in the 1960, the fact that Gordon still lives with his mother after marriage is not as uncommon then as it is rare now. But it brings to Asian readers a familiarity the conflict between mother and daughter in-laws living together, which is still quite prevalent today in our society.
If you can read past the first chapter (unlike my friend who gave up), you’ll enjoy the book. It reads just like watching a good Korean family drama.