'You should always speak the truth but the truth need not be spoken' has become one of my quotes of the year. It's a little circular mandala of confusion if you consider it too deeply but it occurs at a pivotal point in James Runcie's book and I've not forgotten it.
It was reading a piece by James Runcie on living up to parental expectations that made me lift East Fortune, his latest novel, off the shelf in the first place. That doesn't get a book opened mind you, it took the Amazonian onslaught of the Orange Prize longlist to make me do that.
I'm sure there are arguments abounding still about differences between male and female writers and I often wonder if given all these books anonymously, would I have been able to tell the gender of the writer? But in any case I like to think I achieve some balance to my reading (even when I don't) and so it was James Runcie's allotted task.
There can't be that many children who have grown up in the See of Canterbury as the offspring of the Archbishop and inevitably it must have offered a slightly out-of-the-ordinary upbringing, but James Runcie makes one very general point,
'You are always a child to your parents...When I go home I don't feel like a novelist who is pushing 50. Instead I feel like a child. Parents do this to you. No matter how old or successful you might like to think you are, your parents still see you as the boy who always ate his ice-cream too fast...'
Reflecting now on East Fortune (and woe is me,some four weeks after I had finished it, blame the Orange) I can see how this thinking is one of the foundations of a book where the three Henderson brothers return to their parents and their childhood home for the annual summer gathering.
No matter that Jack the academic, the quiet, withdrawn brother is now well into middle-age, has split up from his wife, is superfluous to his daughters, and by the fourth page has unfortunately killed a young man who has leapt in front of his car.
Or that Douglas the television producer is busy conducting clandestine meetings with a work colleague involving flights of fancy on the Eurostar to catch his lover in Paris for a lunch meeting,
Or that supposedly happily married and successful Angus is suddenly ejected from his safe job into the unknown territory of unemployment at the age fifty-four.
Walk up the drive to their home at East Fortune and these men become children again as their father Ian busies himself with the family's very own annual amateur Shakespeare production alongside their mother Elizabeth
'checking that the cutlery was properly aligned and that the seating arrangement conformed to the plan she had drawn up that morning.'
All their childhood traits persisting into middle age come to the fore and all roads seem to lead back to the family. Just how such edifices evolve, develop and survive seemed to me the fine balancing point of this great read.
'They had laughed and they had been happy; confident and free to say whatever they wanted. They were protected from the world by family and companionship.'
Don't for one minute think that the Henderson women don't feature because they most certainly do and James Runcie uses this opportunity to bring a number of unusual female characters into this family bastion of tradition and respectability. These are characters that flow off the page and into the imagination with a real economy of words; Victoria Hislop wanted another 200 pages and though I know what she means I'm also very happy with the less is more that I've been given, it all makes this book clever beyond measure
The increasing years, that undefined moment when a 'trip' becomes a 'fall' (yes, when is that exactly? It would be nice to know, asking Google just gets me 'foliage vacations' in Maine) means that at some stage this family is inevitably going to suffer the loss of one of its parents. When that happens there are some wonderful reflections on the past to be explored and futures to be imagined and James Runcie works these into the whole exceptionally well; defying any descent into sentimentality there are some moments of true poignancy.
'But they had survived, and Elizabeth had loved them throughout their lives. She had even learned not to show that love too strongly; just in case it alarmed them.'
For the Henderson sons that moment when they finally do become the 'older generation' and the responsibility passes into their hands,
'It was his turn now; his mother had made that clear. He had to hold the family together.'
So I sat down to write about East Fortune with a bit of a heavy, heartsink feeling about me, four plus weeks since I'd read it, what on earth would I make of it so long after the turning of the final page beyond a few lines. In the end so much had settled into my memory it only took a tiny stir of the bottom of the pond for the essence to rise to the surface and flood my mind again, the sign of a very good book I think and perhaps final words to the Hendersons,
'His mother and father seemed always to have known that the truth did not always reveal the most about a life. Perhaps they had recognised that it was not so much their lives as the stories they made of them that mattered.'