This brilliantly murky novel describes a nightmarish ten days in the life of a famous, highly successful but deeply dysfunctional family. The action takes place in prisons, mental hospitals, nursing homes — and the House of Commons.
Involved in this brutal tale are three tall, handsome, Old Etonian brothers — a Labour MP, a stinking rich criminal prosecutor and a rather wayward journalist — and their more downmarket adopted brother who’s become a Catholic priest and a diminutive sister called Portia, devoted to helping poor, uneducated Mexican peasants. The parents are out of the picture but very much in the story. The father, a lawyer raised to the peerage, has lately become a victim of Alzheimer’s. The sneering, patronising mother, a former Dior model, is already on her deathbed, sipping ‘trickles of lovely champagne’ but giving off vile vibes.
Tempting though it is to compare this unbonded human mishmash with the author’s own family, the Pakenhams, alas the facts don’t quite fit. There’s no Lady Magnesia Freelove for a start and, though the delirious old father-figure, who thinks he’s the captain of a warship c. 1800 may bear a faint resemblance to the late, great Lord Longford, there’s nothing to connect Elizabeth Longford with the bed-ridden troublemaker in the story.
Whatever her inspirations, Rachel Billington describes the breakdown of family life with extraordinary verve, and balances the uncovering of ghastly private woes with the even more dramatic exposure of ‘black wickedness’ at the very peak of public life.
The story begins with the barrister and the politician having a savage punch-up on learning that their scribbler brother Charlie has hanged himself in the grounds of the mental hospital where he’s being treated for manic depression. In the short, stabbing chapters that follow, the author brews up an exhilarating cocktail of misery, fear, anger and mawkishness. There are lies and loyalty aplenty in this story, but no laughs. The only comic relief comes from a self-centred gasbag of a psychiatrist who cheekily tells a policeman lurking outside the hospital: ‘Don’t forget, there’s a bed ready for you anytime you need a rest!’
Somehow Rachel Billington has created an utterly gripping page-turner, rich in subplots, without making any of the five siblings or attendant figures particularly attractive. My sympathy, such as it is, lies not with the decent priestly brother — indeed I slightly dreaded his prayerful appearances — but with the deranged and defiant Charlie and the pathetic drug-addicted prostitute he’s married in order to save. Charlie soon turns out not to be dead at all but alive and kicking, a Shakespearean clown and Latin-intoning maniac who comes up with wonderful home truths, causes a hullabaloo wherever he is and is finally seen shouting and swearing as he crosses Westminster Bridge to have lunch with his whistle- blowing brother, suddenly the most famous MP in the land.
There are some interesting swipes at the police in this book — one officer wears a black wig with a ‘funny little fringe’ — and the bogus current notion of ‘community’, but no real absolution. In spite of a wealth of religious quotation built into the text, the only light at the end of the tunnel comes with the suggestion that, like the poor old patriarch, we are all lonely seafarers with long journeys ahead of us.