Alice thrust this novel into my hands as I began running for my train, since we’d spent too long talking in a café after meeting up in person again after almost eight years. We had become friends in Brussels fifteen years ago or so, where I was an editor and she was a novelist, and we had many other things in common in our lives, including the experience of being bereaved. I remember telling her once about a moving Second World War memoir I’d just read, about the bombing of Coventry, and her eyes lit up. Now that I’ve read her second most recent novel, Between the Regions of Kindness (her most recent is Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile, shortlisted for lots of prizes), I understand why. It begins in Coventry, and is about war, and death, and mothers and children who misunderstand each other, or keep secrets from each other, or simply don’t know how to communicate some awful truths that have always got in the way. It’s intense, so intense that I had to stop reading it at night because I was getting troubling dreams. But it’s very, very good.
The novel twists family stories together, usually in couples. Rose works in a Coventry factory in the 1930s, and is best friends with Violet, whose father owns the factory. Frank is Violet’s cousin, and Rose – a peace activist and socialist who is calmly manipulative when choosing whose hands she will allow on her body – has his daughter Molly, but loses Frank in the war.
The war is terrible. Alice does an extraordinary job of reimagining the effects of bombardment on civilians. Many, but by no means all, of the Coventry civilians doggedly walk out into the countryside each night to sleep in the fields, or collapse with exhaustion in damp buses, as the German planes throw high explosive into the city, night after night after night. (Now, we cannot help but read Coventry as Dresden as well.) War does very strange things, to memory and buildings, and to the instinct for survival. Rose gives Molly a new name, and, eventually, a new father. She will do anything to keep her daughter alive, and her manipulative instincts are strong.
Now we’re in the present, almost. It’s 2003, and Lara is reaching the end of her endurance as the interior designer for a firm that’s clambering from one contract to the next. Her son Jay has gone missing: why has he gone to Iraq? What business does he have with ragtag anti-war protestors and people in weird baggy clothes? What good can he do in a war zone? Why will no-one send him back home? If this were the 1980s Lara would be a yuppy: focused on her job and her perfect flat and the next massive, trivial client worry, and unfocused on her son, her life, her difficult parents, the world’s wars. But Jay has gone and her desperation to get him back, to talk to him, to find out where he is, becomes acute as the US bombardment begins to throw high explosive into Saddam’s Baghdad, day after day after day.
Molly is Lara’s mother, and Jay’s closest ally. Molly is now an ageing actress, married to Lara’s father Rufus, a playwright, who has less talent than he thinks he has, and takes it out on Molly. Molly runs a guesthouse in Brighton, and takes in strays and waifs, people who Lara despises because they’re not doing anything with their lives, merely surviving, and who Rufus despises because they don’t pay their bills. But Molly staggers on, and won’t stop offering shelter and love when people need it.
Three more characters of note: Jay himself, writing appalled emails home on a borrowed journalist’s laptop, taking shocking photographs of war in hospitals that the media won’t publish, to keep their embed status in the US-led army. Jemmy, a young mother whose son Laurie has died prematurely, is deranged with grief, staggering to maintain an equilibrium and find a safe place to grow her new baby, the one that makes her bleed, about whom she hasn’t yet told her bewildered husband. And Oliver, a vicar and a faith healer who is tormented by the death of his wife Grace, whom he once brought back to life from certain death, and then could not save.
This is a long, long novel, and, to be dispassionately editorial about it, I can see several twists and turns that I would have cut, and back stories of characters that I would have shed. But it all works. This is such a strong, powerful story about love and death and mothers and children, set against wars that don’t seem to end. It’s a novel to give you the impetus to keep you going, when kindness is the only thing you can manage, and yet sometimes that can be enough.
Buy the novel from Unbound. Once the initial subscription has been raised then Alice’s share of the profits (50% of every book sold) will go to First Story – a charity which changes lives through writing.