In Never Mind Miss Fox, Olivia Glazebrook’s second novel, the revelation of a long buried secret releases a Pandora’s Box of disasters. At the heart of the book is a disturbing sex scene between a 16-year-old girl and an older, soon-to-be-married man. With intelligent restraint, Glazebrook gives only a partial description of the event itself. Alcohol and the distorting effect of time and memory render the details hazy. But the ramifications of the brief affair play out with devastating consequences.
The novel turns on the lives of Clive and Martha, a successful, if slightly dull couple who, during the course of the book, marry and have a child. On one level, Never Mind Miss Fox is simply a powerful cautionary tale about marital infidelity and dishonesty. However, Glazebrook’s writing is more interesting than that. Her greatest skill is her ability to evoke sympathy for inherently unsympathetic characters.
Clive and Martha are deeply flawed and for the most part unlikable protagonists. Likewise the enigmatic Eliot Fox, who haunts their lives and is as cruel as she is vulnerable — Glazebrook is particularly good on the ambiguity of power in sexual attraction and manipulation. Clive, a prig and a hypocrite, is vividly human, his jealousy almost as unattractive as the self-deception he practises, and Martha is barely more likable. When their child Eliza is born, Martha’s resentment towards both daughter and husband is an unsettling but authentic portrait of the side of motherhood we don’t much want to examine. Shifting back and forth in time, the novel exposes the tensions in their marriage: the guilt and lies as well as the love.
As in her previous novel, The Trouble with Alice, Glazebrook observes human faults and frailty and traces them with an unflinching eye. She has the ability, like Anita Shreve or Maggie O’ Farrell, to scrutinise and describe complex family dynamics with forensic precision. And despite her characters’ failings, the reader for the most part cares about them.
In the latter half of the book, the focus shifts to Eliza. The portrait of a child caught between rowing parents in a miserable marriage is a poignant one. Beside her, both parents seem ever more dreadful. But while Eliza’s tale is moving, the novel begins to lose its power when written from the perspective of an irrefutably innocent child and, crucially, the reader begins to lose empathy with both Martha and Clive.
Glazebrook’s writing is also strong enough to do without the slightly laboured metaphor about whether bats in the loft of Martha’s house should have been disturbed or not. But these are small criticisms. Never Mind Miss Fox is a compelling, disconcerting book which lingers long after in the memory.
Katie Waldegrave’s The Poets’ Daughters was published last year. Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £11.69. Tel: 08430 600033