Book review: Cousins by Salley Vickers

To label Salley Vickers' complex and compelling new novel a family saga would be to do this acutely perceptive writer a disservice.

Monday, 26th June 2017, 3:49 pm
Updated Tuesday, 18th July 2017, 8:41 am
Cousins by Salley Vickers
Cousins by Salley Vickers

Although ostensibly an intriguing account of three generations of one eccentric family spanning 70 years of their internal conflicts, passions and dark secrets, Cousins digs deep into the human psyche to uncover some hard truths, to celebrate love and loyalty, and to explore serious moral issues.

It is no secret that Liverpool-born Vickers was a psychoanalyst before turning to writing fiction, and it is this desire to understand the motivations and inner workings of her characters’ minds that informs this unique exploration of an uncomfortably close-knit family facing a life-changing tragedy.

Told through the eyes of three generations of strong women from a left-wing, intellectual, middle-class but well-off family from Northumberland, this remarkable novel weaves together darkness and light as we move from the outbreak of World War Two to the present day in a vortex of revelations, dramas and almost mystical coincidences.

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When brilliant and mercurial Cambridge University student Will Tye falls during a ‘free-climb’ on the spire of King’s College Chapel, he suffers life-changing injuries which leave him so badly disabled that he can only communicate by blinking.

The terrible accident ripples through three generations of the family, bringing to light old tragedies and dangerous secrets. Grandparents Fred and Betsy, first cousins who married each many years ago, are still haunted by the death of Will’s uncle, Nat Tye, who died in an identical escapade.

For Will’s sister Hetta, it is the moment ‘when everything changed for my family.’ For as long as she can remember ‘there was a kind of blur, a tinge of melancholy at the outlines of Will’s personality’ and she is determined to dig into the family’s past.

But most closely affected is Will’s cousin Cecelia, daughter of Fred and Betsy’s flighty daughter Bell. Will and Cecelia are kindred spirits who grew up together in the countryside around the family’s old manor house, Downlands, in Northumberland. Cecelia’s close attachment to Will leaves her most vulnerable to his suffering and her own future will depend on how she responds to it.

As we travel into the past with Betsy, Bell and Hetta, we discover that each member of the family holds some clue to the chain of events which may have led to the accident and each person takes the blame.

It will take an act of exceptional courage and self-sacrifice to find a tentative resolution… and maybe even redemption.

Vickers uses her almost forensic psychoanalytic skills in this enthralling and yet intensely sensitive study of one family’s extraordinary dynamics as the Tye clan’s thoughts, actions, passions and loves echo down the years and through the generations.

Doubles are a central theme along the way, with two sets of cousins forming relationships and history constantly repeating itself, while fascinating literary motifs are threaded throughout the story as family members examine their own views through the likes of Virgil, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare.

But it is in the second half of the book that the tumultuous journey gains an unexpected momentum as the twists and turns explode into a gripping police procedural which questions the whole nature of transgression.

Written with the finesse and emotional intelligence that we have come to expect from Vickers, Cousins is a haunting novel full of heart, soul and the author’s trademark compassion.

(Penguin, paperback, £8.99)