Tag Archives: Manchester

The Unknown Bridesmaid by Margaret Forster

“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.

The Unknown BridesmaidJulia 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.

Review copy

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Beast of Burden by Ray Banks

For the title of Ray Banks’ fourth and final novel in the Cal Innes series, I have to think that the Rolling Stones song played some role. In Beast of Burden, Manchester PI Cal Innes is dogged by two old enemies: Detective Donley (otherwise known as Donkey) and crime lord Morris Tiernan. There’s a lot of history between Cal, Donley and Tiernan, and Beast of Burden finds Cal weakened badly, walking with a cane, and barely able to speak following a drug-related stroke. His condition leads both Donley and Tiernan to believe that they can finally own Cal. But Cal is no one’s bitch, and as the Stones song says: “I’ll never be your beast of burden.”

Cal and his partner Frank run their PI business out of a boxing gym for ex-cons run by a friend named Paolo, and when the book begins, Cal is hired by Tiernan to find his missing son Mo. Tiernan cast Mo off some time before and now Mo has disappeared. Cal doesn’t share the Mo Tiernan case with Frank, and he uses Frank’s distraction with another case to search for Mo on his own. Exactly why Cal wants to fly solo becomes apparent as the book continues.

Meanwhile Detective Sergeant Donley “Donkey,” up to his old ways, is in hot water in the department. Cal’s brother addict Declan was once Donley’s grass, but now that Declan is dead, Donley’s interest in Cal increases. Donley thinks that Cal will make the perfect replacement for his brother, and once Donley learns that Cal is investigating the disappearance of Mo Tiernan, he wants in on the action.

The book goes back and forth between its two narrators–Cal and Donley. Cal tries to find Mo, and Donley’s always one step behind with the goal of owning Cal and also of nailing the Tiernans. Donley has to be one of the nastiest fictional coppers ever created. He gravitates towards the weaker, bottom feeders–people he can threaten, manipulate, and thrash, so naturally Cal, called “Mong” by Donley, falls into that category.  Here’s Donley hassling Paddy, “a nine-carat smackhead.”

I drew my car up alongside Paddy as he walked. When I honked the horn, two short bursts, he near shit himself.

“Y’alright, Paddy?” I didn’t know you were out.”

He saw us, pulled a face. “Aw, fuck.”

“That’s not much of a hello, is it?” I cranked the wheel, jumped the pavement. This lad wanted to pump his feet, I could keep driving, run the bastard down. I flung open the car door and he back ed up a couple of steps. I got out of the car, pulled out my baccy tin, started to roll a ciggie. “Were you going to run there, Pads?”

“Nah,” he said, wiping his feet like he had an itch on the soles.”I wouldn’t run Sergeant.”

“Detective.”

“Right, Detective. Not daft enough to run, am I?”

“Used to be a fuckin’ rabbit, as I recall.” I looked around the street, but the place was dead apart from a slow rain that’d started as soon as I left the poof’s club. Right enough, most people who lived out here, they’d still be in their kip, sleeping it off.

Donkey decides there are no witnesses:

“How’s about you and me, we go up that alley over there? I think we need to have a quiet word.”

I pointed up behind him. An alley, long and narrow, boxed in high on both sides, led to the other estate. Looked like the kind of corridor Paddy used to squat down when he was committed fully to smack and fuck knows what else. He obviously didn’t like the idea, pulled another De Niro face.

“You still on the gear?” I said.

“No.”

“Right then.” I pointed the way. “Up you go.”

“The fuck?”

I put a hand on him, pushed him in his hollow chest towards the alley. He was a streak of piss, nearly buckled under my shove, and when I pushed him again, he flinched like he was set to come back at us.

“What?” I said. “You want something, Paddy?”

Yeah, he wanted to get fucking bolshy, push us back. But he knew, he put the finger on us, I’d have him back in a piss-soaked cell, the kind with the thick stink that got right in your clothes. See how he fancied going back to his ‘mate’ with that smell on him.

Paddy trudged into the alley. I checked behind us, made sure there was nobody with a nose on them, or about to do one with my car. Then I followed him, rubbing my hands to get them warm. I saw the puke and broken glass on the ground, reckoned this’d be perfect.

Beast of Burden is for those who like their gritty crime novels dark & hardboiled. I loved it. For those interested, I had not read the other titles in the series before reading Beast of Burden, but this did not get in the way of my enjoyment. While Cal has a sorry history with the Tiernans and Donley, past incidents are referenced and can be understood. I now own all four books in the series.

Author Ray Banks first created Cal Innes as a character in a short story.  Here’s the order of Cal Innes novels:

Saturday’s Child

Sucker Punch (British title Donkey Punch)

No More Heroes

Beast of Burden

My copy read on my kindle courtesy of the publisher via netgalley.

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Filed under Banks Ray, Fiction