The power of the past, the directive hand of childhood: the themes of The Unknown Bridesmaid are familiar fictional territory. But Margaret Forster has a deft and idiosyncratic touch in this story of child psychologist Julia, whose young clients reflect the trauma of her own early years. Sessions with Camilla, Precious, Janice, Claire and others are intercut with Julia’s own memories, so that gradually we learn what happened to her after her father’s early death and that of her mother when Julia was a teenager.
For the reader, she presents something of a challenge. The memories are candid: her behaviour was insufferable. Taken in by her kindly cousin Iris and husband after her mother’s death, she is horrible to their children; she steals, and does her level best to cause trouble for the amiable husband.
And there is the dark cloud of an earlier transgression when she was much younger, which had disastrous and haunting consequences. She feels guilty, indeed, now in adult life, a guilt that seems to be subsumed into her present occupation, trying to discover what is wrong — if, indeed, there is something wrong — with young girls who have behavioural problems.
The challenge for the reader is that Julia is unlikable. That she comes across as solipsistic is inevitable — a novel whose protagonist is examining her own life is bound to feature solipsism. But there is something almost complacent about her, and a sense of a person so immersed in what has happened to her as to have lost the capacity for relationships. A failed marriage; few friends, it would seem. But — the saving grace — a shrewd and sympathetic eye and ear for troubled children.
The various children wind in and out of Julia’s own story — truanting, beating up their siblings and thieving. Not infrequently Julia spots that the trouble is not the child but the mother. This intercutting is a neat device, diverting attention from Julia’s own history and postponing any kind of conclusion, while pointing up analogies with Julia’s own situation: jealousies, resentments and difficulties with mothers. It could perhaps be seen as too neat, but that would be to sidestep the essential nature of Julia’s career choice — she is a child psychologist, it seems, because she knows what is is to have been herself a child defined as difficult.
So Julia’s behaviour was not her fault? And her patients’ behaviour is not theirs? I can imagine the kind of discussion that The Unknown Bridesmaid will provoke. But I don’t know where the author stands, which is to her credit. It is not a case of the novel as psychological parable, though there is a whiff of this. The imaginative structure and the energy of the story give it a greater distinction and make you entirely interested in Julia, even if you don’t much care for her, while her child patients are nicely varied, and for the most part persuasive, with just the occasional turn of phrase that sounds too adult for a nine- or ten-year-old.
A twist at the end shines new light on past events, but makes no difference to what had happened, and Julia remained, for me, sombre and distinctly humourless. ‘Everything, in every person’s life, led back to childhood, a truism which she’d found could not be stressed enough’: her own thought. For book-group discussion: truism or escapist mantra?