The Landscape of Love, Sally Beauman
What would I make of this book which I bought at the market for 50p, such a pristine copy that I thought it had been very recently published (actually 2005), whose author I had never heard of? I begrudged every minute I wasn’t reading it.
I’ve read so many books of this type that I’ve devised a formula. Begin with an old house; it should be in Suffolk, Norfolk or Dorset. Enter some present day characters with a connection to the house. Hint at some past tragedy which has affected all the characters for the rest of their lives. Go backwards and forwards in time, perhaps using old diaries and letters. Find out eventually what really happened. There you are folks, plotline for a bestseller. The Landscape of Love, though, is so much more than the sum of these parts.
The old house is a former abbey in Suffolk; rambling, crumbling in parts and ghost-ridden by nuns, according to those who sense their presence. We begin the story in the summer of 1967, while the Mortland family live there. Gramps owns the house. A younger son, he chose it as his inheritance, intending to farm the land. Unfortunately he’s not been very successful and money is running out. His son Guy is dead and daughter-in-law Stella shares the house with her three daughters. Stella is a brilliant cook but out of it in other respects, seeming never to have got over her husband’s death. Julia and Finn are stunningly beautiful and clever. They have a much younger sister, Maisie, who narrates the first section of the book. One should be alerted, by the way she talks to the nuns, that she’s a child with problems, yet somehow her narration is accepted at face value.
Into this family mix comes Dan, the outsider, son of a local ploughman, grandson of a Romany woman with ‘the sight’. He’s working class, a ‘pikey’ as unkind villagers call him, but clever enough to get to Cambridge. His best friend is Nick, the local doctor’s son. When Dan graduates, he brings home a Cambridge friend, brilliant Lucas, an artist who may be a genius. While staying at the abbey, Lucas paints a portrait of the three girls, a picture he calls The Sisters Mortland and sketches a drawing called Summer Maisie. In America, the book was published as The Sisters Mortland and I think it’s a better title, as the disturbing picture haunts the whole book. 1967 is the last happy summer, the year of the tragedy (we don’t know for a while what it is) and the year everyone looks back to. The lives of Finn, Julia, Nick, Dan and Lucas will be forever linked in a web of secrets, love and betrayals.
Dan becomes the book’s main character and narrator. He’s had a brilliant career making TV adverts, has made a ton of money but become a druggy wreck. He’s adrift from his roots and the sisters won’t talk to him. His bitter, cruel self assessment suggests an unsympathetic character, yet my reading of him was full of pity. The whole truth of the 1967 tragedy remains unknowable, but the events surrounding it become disturbingly clear. The ending is shocking, redemptive and to a certain extent open ended. The book is very well written and I found the characters lived with me long after I’d finished it. I’m seriously impressed and shall now seek out the author’s other books, which everyone else seems to have read before me.