“There had always been in her this meanness which every now and again got out of control.”
Ignore the sweet-looking hints of the cover. The Unknown Bridesmaid by Margaret Forster is the story of Julia, a strangely disaffected child who becomes a successful child psychologist. It’s Julia’s job to explore the hidden corners of culpability in her patients’ anti-social, self-destructive and sometimes deviant behaviour, and yet this is the very thing that Julia sidesteps so neatly in her own past and present. The Unknown Bridesmaid, the twenty-sixth novel from the author, is subtle and intelligent, but far more than that, this is a dark tale of self-deception and motivation in which the murky impulses of the main character lurk just beneath the surface of her actions.
Julia is just eight years old when she’s invited back to Manchester to be a bridesmaid for her cousin Iris. Julia’s mother is surprised by the invitation as she and her sister Maureen aren’t close. Even Julia recognizes that “her mother and her aunt were engaged in some sort of complicated battle,” and there’s the sense that Maureen’s life took a turn for the better while Julia’s mother’s did not. We’re given an impression of Julia’s mother, and it isn’t pleasant:
Julia’s mother did not immediately accept the invitation for Julia to be a bridesmaid; she waited three days, and then she rang her sister up, saying she doubted whether Julia could accept because of the expense involved. There would be the dress, the shoes, the flowers, and she had no money to spare for any of those things. She reminded her sister that she was a widow on a small, a very small, pension. Her sister was furious, but she tried to keep the anger at Julia’s mother boasting of her poverty (which is how she regarded it) out of her voice. She reminded herself that her sister had had a hard time, and was indeed quite poor, whereas she herself was comparatively well off, and ought to be magnanimous. She said her sister was not to worry about the expense. She said that of course she would pay for Julia’s outfit and everything that went with it. She had always intended to and should have made this clear. If Julia’s measurements were sent, a dress would be made and shoes bought.
Julia as a bridesmaid is not the main gist of the story, but it is a pivotal event in which we see Julia for the first time. She’s an odd child. If we want to be kind we’d call her ‘quiet,’ and if we dislike Julia, we’d call her ‘sneaky.’ It’s at Iris’s wedding that we first grasp the idea that Julia has a certain emotional disconnect from the people around her. Iris is a wonderful young woman, warm, kind, loving and much-loved, “admired” and joyful, yet Julia, much like her own dreary, joyless mother, holds back, and “sees how everyone was in thrall to her cousin.”
The wedding is just the first event in a chain of tragedy that binds Julia to her relatives in Manchester. Financial circumstances and a dark secret involving Julia’s father bring Julia and her mother back to Manchester to live, and so the lives of the two sets of relatives twine together initially through the wedding and then through death. A horrible incident occurs involving Julia, and she may or may not be responsible.
She was the one who had always, as a child, wanted to ask questions but had been trained not to. She liked being asked them, too, or thought she did until the questions became tricky and she began to worry about what her answers were revealing, to herself, as much as to the questioner.
Julia shoves aside her involvement and the hint of guilt and plunges ahead into a childhood and adolescence full of emotionally disconnected acts of casual cruelty towards the other people in her life. As she grows into her teens, the acts becomes increasingly more serious and focused….
The Unknown Bridesmaid maintains a quietly restrained narrative tone while exploring how a close-knit group of people deal with a young girl who’s emotionally disturbed. As the narrative goes back and forth in time between the past and the present, there’s a fine film over all these events which covers & obscures Julia’s culpability and intentions. Julia’s childhood of increasingly abhorrent acts is spliced with her present as she counsels children with various emotional and behavioral problems. As a psychologist, Julia recognizes that “it was tempting to confuse a child’s evasion of the truth with a calculated piece of lying.” She’s good at uncovering the motivations behind various children’s destructive actions, and while this talent may spring from her own emotionally difficult past, the clarity Julia shows with her patients stops there. Her insight is towards others–not herself.
Author Margaret Forster includes weddings and bridesmaids a few times in the novel, and when these occasions emerge in Julia’s life, they illuminate Julia’s estrangement from the people in her life. She cannot participate emotionally and these happy celebrations always leave Julia on the outside, disinterested, bored, and yet aware that somehow she’s ‘different.’
The Unknown Bridesmaid, primarily a character study, is a stunning novel, and perhaps part of my admiration for the book comes in no small part to the fact that it plays into one of my pet theories: those of us who give the most to strangers, give nothing to our families and those we are supposed to love. It’s a version of Mrs Jellyby’s telescopic philanthropy. Structured differently, let’s say chronologically, the plot would not contain as much mystery, but the plot goes back and forth with the past and the present, so we see Julia as a damaged child and later as a well-functioning adult. But as Julia’s present unfolds we begin to question just how well-functioning she really is. As for Julia’s past, how should we judge the intentions of children when they don’t understand their own impulses? Julia very much remains an enigma to herself and her relatives, especially Elsa, a girl who once adored Julia and yet found herself the target of Julia’s malicious spite. Julia also remains a mystery to the reader–partly due to the novel’s clever structure and brilliant characterizations, but also due to the novel’s wonderful ending which while deliberately anticlimactic brings only deeper questions involving the elusiveness of the truth and multiple versions of events. Should we admire Julia for how she managed to recoup her life and become a professional success or should we dislike her for treating her family badly and failing to overcome her emotional problems?
The Unknown Bridesmaid is going to make my best-of-year list. I’d never read Margaret Forster before and I’m delighted to have found her at last.
Finally this novel should appeal to fans of Penelope Lively.