“ … a novel about what happens when people who love each other don’t say so. It deals passionately and honestly with human breakdown. And it tells of our need for stories and how stories can help make sense of the random nature of life.”
This is a story told by three people – Iris, her daughter Vivie, and Matthew. It takes place over three days leading up to the story-telling festival where Iris is performing. Iris and Vivie are estranged and gradually the reason is revealed as all three characters tell their stories. As the book starts Matthew and his dad Dick are about to travel to the festival, Iris is already there and Vivie, living in London is having a crisis in her life, unbeknown to the others. Matthew and Vivie had been childhood friends, living next door to each other at the time when Iris first suffered a breakdown, which is later revealed to be schizophrenia.
This is also a book about story-telling, indeed the book is structured into separate tales which interlink and finally unite. Along with the stories of the three characters’ lives there are also the stories that Iris tells. These are reminiscent of folk and fairy tales. Appropriately, Iris treasures the book of fairy tales that had belonged to her mother. I must have read all the books of fairy tales in the junior library as a child - I loved them. So it was with nostalgia that I read Iris’s stories such as “Earth and Sea”, the story of the fisherman, his wife and Murmurina their daughter, “born with a fat fishtail that glistened where she should have had legs” and who “made ‘O’ shapes with her mouth when she should have had a voice”.
The story-telling motif also runs through Dick and Matthew’s journey to the festival. Dick has planned it to take place over three days, stopping over night at various places and using only the minor roads. I liked the comparison of travelling in this way as “darning” by going under and over the motorways and A roads.
The main theme is the effects that not communicating has on the people we love. Iris’s father is locked in his grief after the death of his wife and Iris believes he blames her for her mother’s death; Iris isolated by her illness can’t communicate her love to her daughter; Matthew, who learnt at the age of twelve that “if you say how you feel you lose control over what happens next” couldn’t tell Vivie he loves her; and Vivie knew that “you had to be on guard because you never knew when your own insides – or anyone else’s insides – might spill out.”
The book explores the difficulties and effects of living with someone with schizophrenia, burying frightening experiences and the way we lose control over events. Dick sums it up in his advice to Matthew:
“The real risk, it seems to me, lies in not talking about the things that matter the most. That’s what made Iris ill. What we don’t say doesn’t go away. It stays inside and after a while of not being spoken about it turns against us. … The things we don’t talk about fester and then they infect us. They eat away at us like a cancer.”
The book is full of beautiful descriptions – of trees, particularly the laburnum (the "story-telling tree") and gardens in East Anglia, of the mediaeval castle over looking the Bristol Channel and the festival performers and the landscape of England as Dick and Matthew travel across country, which brings the story alive.
The opening sentence sums up Iris's story "I have come home, after a long and difficult journey." Everything after that is the story of how she got there. A book worth reading.