Ruth, the narrator of Susie Boyt’s seventh novel, is both the child of a single mother and a single mother herself. Intelligent, quirky and despairingly fastidious, she has tried to bring up her adored daughter in loving orderliness, but the results have been disastrous. By 15, the beautiful, gifted Eleanor is a heroin addict, living in filth and chaos. Before long, she is pregnant with Lily; and Ruth, ‘stodgy with intentions and conventions’, decides to make off with Lily in order to save her baby granddaughter’s life. Or perhaps it is Lily who saves Ruth.
‘People didn’t speak much of the thick currents of emotion that flowed between the single parent and the only child, the joint unbridled purpose, the coming first with each other, the aims shared, doubled, twinned,’ Ruth tells us, and adds tellingly: ‘I sometimes thought that politicians who lambast single parents for their irresponsibility, their sexual assault on the fabric of authority, were just consumed with jealousy that two people could be so close.’
The drama of the following 18 years, as Lily grows up, is described with an intensity and sincerity that mark this novel as a big advance on Boyt’s previous fiction. Always witty and unexpected (as her FT columns also showed), she has a clear perception of the passion, pain and particularities of female existence. The male characters, including those who impregnate both Ruth and Eleanor, are barely sketched in, though Eleanor’s father at least provides her with some money via a valuable work of art. Delicacies and delights are conjured out of small domestic treats, lavishly enjoyed and described, but the horror of hopeless addiction lies beneath. Boyd’s presentation of Ruth’s and Eleanor’s contrasting worlds is like watching a master baker create a cake of mille-feuille pastry in which a raw and bloody joint of meat is concealed.