There's nothing like a good book about family life. Life freighted as it is by its own history and shared memories and understanding, and This is Paradise a book to make you realise, lest you had any doubts, quite what a powerful unit a family has the potential to be. Both for good and for ill as my day job will testify, but nevertheless, for any outsider coming in, what a baffling and disconcerting place a family can seem to be.
Will Eaves achieves a masterly dissection and re-piecing of the Allden family. Emily and Don and their four children, confident and capable Liz, Clive who hovers on the autistic spectrum, and Lotte and Benjamin all rub along together in a ramblingly chaotic house in 1970s suburban Bath. It's a lovely Bohemian-esque setting...I always expect books set in Bath to be nice and tidy with Farrow & Ball paint and Smallbone of Devizes posh kitchens, but Will Eaves doesn't go there. Nor does he take the easy route and drag in terrible goings-on, it would be easy enough to bring in the big guns...a bit of drug addiction... spell in prison for someone...unwanted teenage pregnancy... a mugging to help the plot along. In fact someone does take a bit of a beating but the family take it all in their stride, generally nothing really dreadful happens to Family Allden that they can't cope with.
Don is a picture framer whilst Emily works with special-needs children and makes patchwork quilts, and it is the pieced narrative of family life that probably appealed to me the most here. It's a strange book to start reading which requires some concentration and I would suggest, if possible, a longer reading stretch at the beginning. It confirms how baffling another family can be to a stranger...which effectively the reader is when they turn the first page. Moments and scraps of experiences and events are randomly stitched together much like the life of any family, and of course like the quilts, until gradually they start to blend and form a pattern, exactly like a quilt. But it takes time and can be a while before you can see it....and like so many quilts, perhaps you need time to stand back from This is Paradise a little to really see how clever and harmonious it all is.
We need little excuse for a picture of a quilt here,and though I didn't make this, and I have no idea who did, I spent an age studying it at a quilt exhibition and it is a perfect example of what I mean...the more you look the more you see.
It is almost two weeks since I finished This is Paradise and any rush to my blank screen to write out my thoughts would have been a real mistake, so many subtle shades and nuances waiting to be spotted here.
Clive sums his family up with his usual intuition...
'Each of them had failings. Not one saw these failings as Clive did - rationally, dispassionately, fairly. Whether as parents or sibling rivals, they were individually flawed; but together - like a scene of tribal earnestness, a fete or a fayre, glimpsed romantically from the deep cover of hawthorn that straggled over the garage - they were good, an ideal almost; necessary and at the same time vulnerable to change...'
And so the book builds with a series of vignettes, the stuff and substance of ordinary family life wherein love takes all its forms various, anxieties are contained, quirks and foibles are tolerated and leavened. Clive's unpredictable outbursts, a visit to the dentist, the family holiday in France, the sibling rivalry, even the arrival of a new spin dryer.
How well I remember my mum taking delivery of our new spin dryer and the stern warnings about not putting your hand in it while it was still going or it would have your arm off, and us standing by and watching that lattice thing being pressed down on the clothes before the lid was closed, and being terrified. Lotte and Liz are witness to this going on in their kitchen too, and meanwhile Clive is out in the garden trying to inflate a blow-up tent, as sons do. It is all the stuff of day-to-day family life and it is moments like that in any book that resurrect a mood and a memory in me that make the whole thing work.
It might seem like an insignificant detail hardly worth adding to a novel, but moments like that suggest to me an author who wants to add depth and significance, and can be bothered to find it, offering it to me to make of what I will.
I've done the mother bit myself (obviously), and I expect many of you also know only too well those moments, the little set-pieces with your children which don't quite proceed as you had anticipated, and when your role is to smooth over, avoid the confrontation, don't let on, be conciliatory, act as if nothing has happened and move swiftly on. So Emily, who has gone to visit Liz at university and plans to take her out for a meal, is unexpectedly farmed off back to the station early to catch her train because Liz has something else to do ...
'Emily was on the point of suggesting that they go out for dinner or order a Chinese in, when Liz said, " Mum, would you mind very much if I didn't walk you all the way to the station? There's this photography thing at the union tonight and I'm going...
'Of course. I'll get the bus. I'm quite happy.'
Tactful dissembling to spare feelings, or conceal disappointment or hurt often goes with the territory of family, and there is a fine contrast provided early on in the book with the appearance of Emily's mother, who hasn't learned the skill at all and does nothing to spare Emily's feelings. Perhaps a nice example of that vow we all make when we feel hard done-by as children ...when I'm a parent I won't do that and perhaps Emily over-compensated as a result, but in the end how many of us ever feel we get it right, good enough sometimes has to do.
I know I was particularly well-tuned in to the second half of the book, and fast forward thirty years as the family gather round Emily, now stricken by illness and dying, and so the bedside vigil begins. It was fifteen years last month since the death of my mum in similar circumstances, the colour of the sky in February and the sight of snowdrops will always remind me of those six long bedside days. What happens to Family Allden as they ease Emily on her journey...and in contrast to the partial life which has no history as seen by the care home staff, is all handled with great sensitivity and astuteness...
'The gas of communicable memory had evaporated and left behind 'a lovely lady'. So maybe the narrowing of her life into a single room, with a wipe clean floor and some furry tigers wasn't a tragedy. Maybe it was liberation.'
I sensed Will Eaves knew what he was talking about here.
And so I emerged the other end, having helped to do the ashes, and having partaken of those moments of black humour that only a family who have that shared history can manage without offending, but by this time I do feel part of them...
The urn contained a surprising quantity of ash.
'Let's put a bit of her aorund the pot- around the roots,'Liz suggested. 'Get her into the soil a bit more.'
'Good idea,' said Don. Then of course the others wanted to sprinkle their mother into the earth and a sort of routine developed...
'Not sure what I've got here,' Clive said. 'Feels like a leg. Who's got the other one, that's what I want to know. Liz? Benjamin?'
and I have seen Family Allden make their graveside tributes..
'Liz thanks her mother for bailing her out when she went to school drunk and for 'letting me bring twenty of my friends back from the pub on Christmas Eve and never complaining'
And suddenly I realised over again what families are really for, and why they matter, and how precious those moments both happy and excruciatingly dreadful can be.
Every quilter knows that you stitch whatever is happening in your life into each quilt you make, and I kept thinking of that as I read This is Paradise. Those moments that were slowly piecing together a quilt of a family that will endure, and can be looked back on from the distance of passing years. Securities to wrap around you when times may be hard... perhaps too the insecurities that can be the undoing when they come back to haunt... family is not good news for everyone. As the Alldens move into the next stage of their lives without their mum, and Don frames one of Emily's black and white quilts for posterity, that seemed like an act that held huge and lasting significance.