A Perfect Explanation by Eleanor Anstruther - book review: An exquisite and powerful portrait of a broken family

Every family has a few skeletons in its cupboard but the ones rattling around in Eleanor Anstruther’s closet tell an intensely disturbing tale of human tragedy.

By Pam Norfolk
Tuesday, 12th March 2019, 10:15 am
Updated Tuesday, 12th March 2019, 10:18 am
A Perfect Explanation by Eleanor Anstruther
A Perfect Explanation by Eleanor Anstruther

Anstruther, a descendant of the aristocratic Campbells – the Dukes of Argyll whose imposing home is the fairy-tale Inverary Castle in Scotland – has always struggled to fully understand the legacy of her seriously dysfunctional family.

So like all good writers, she decided to fictionalise the real-life story of her grandmother, Enid Campbell, granddaughter of the 8th Duke of Argyll, who sold her youngest son Ian (Anstruther’s father) to her sister for £500 in a dark and disturbing period of mental instability.

The result is A Perfect Explanation, an extraordinary literary debut novel which explores the boundaries of gender, privilege, tradition and motherhood, and gazes with an unflinching eye on the shocking events that have rippled through the Campbell family for decades, and left a trail of generational damage in their wake.

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Gripping, insightful and written with a breathtaking elegance and eloquence that makes this first novel doubly impressive, Anstruther’s beautifully crafted story sets out to examine and understand how the intolerable weight of expectation and responsibility can damage and destroy lives.

Alternating between the 1920s and 1930s, and a pivotal day in 1964, the story unfolds through the perspectives of Edith, her sister Joan, and Enid’s beautiful but unloved daughter Finetta.

Enid Campbell, the granddaughter of a duke, was born in 1892 at Inverary in ‘a fairy-tale castle’ of spires, stones, mullioned windows and moats, and grew up surrounded by servants, wanting for nothing except love.

But when her beloved brother Ivar was killed in the First World War, a new heir was needed for the Campbell family’s ‘substantial fortune’ and it was up to Enid to provide it.

Aged just nineteen, she was forced into a troubled marriage with 17-year-old Douglas Anstruther and three children soon followed.

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Broken by post-natal depression, overwhelmed by motherhood and a loveless marriage, Enid made the shocking decision to abandon her family, thereby starting a chain of events – including a kidnap, a court case, and the sale of her son Ian – that reverberated down the generations.

Fast forward to 1964 and Enid is being cared for in a Hampstead nursing home where memories of her sister Joan are ‘resurfacing like so much flotsam’ and ‘the anger that slept and the grief that haunted’ have woken up and shouted.

She sold her son to Joan, the unmarried sister ‘free to waft among her famous friends’ and living the life that Enid could have had if she had not been pushed into the ‘imprisonment of marriage and brutality of childbirth.’ But Enid had not known then that she would never see him again.

Now it seems her daughter Finetta, the child that Enid ‘discarded in the bottom drawer of her bureau,’ has news of a family reunion that will cause only dismay…

Anstruther writes with brutal honesty about the shocking events that have long overshadowed her family, but there is also a tender compassion that has grown from a dawning understanding of her grandmother’s battle with depression and mental illness.

Despite their wealth, class and privilege, these were ordinary people coping with a series of tragedies and mental breakdowns by resorting to the classic British stiff upper lip which we now recognise can wreak such terrible psychological turmoil.

These are characters that haunt the reader; their rivalries, their emotional upheavals, their tragedies, their traditions, their cruelties and their losses become irreconcilable calamities that carry them into a spiral of despair and division.

Ultimately, this was a family that ‘never said… never asked.’ All hurts, conflicts and passions were buried and then later excused by simply saying, ‘sorry we made such a hash of it.’

Anstruther reveals that putting pen to paper was a cathartic experience which allowed her family members to live again and helped her discover that they were actually ‘like us – flawed, vulnerable to circumstance… trying and failing and trying again to live with themselves.’

An exquisite and powerful portrait of a broken family…

(Salt Publishing, paperback, £12.99)