This Family Of Things was quite a surprise to me. In spite of the blurb implying that lives would change forever, I still underestimated intensity of the emotional rollercoasters (yes, that is meant to be plural) that Alison Jameson would take us on in this, her fourth novel.
Let’s start at the beginning: The Prologue. What a fantastic opening! It draws you right in, watching a woman (no spoilers) arrive at a house in Oregon, U.S.A., and contemplate this moment in her life. I’ve heard that getting the opening of a novel right is often a difficult aspect of writing that for authors, but Jameson strikes exactly the right tone and balance, catching our attention without revealing too much.
The narrative shifts, in time and location, to a cold, November day in 2013, in the town of Tullyvin, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. By the time this day ends, the wheels have been set in motion for the relationships, attitudes, hopes, and ambitions of the central characters to change completely.
In the rural outskirts of Tullyvin, the Keegan family own a farm and surrounding fields. Passed down through generations, Bird, Olive and Margaret feel like they belong to this land and the surrounding landscape. They understand it, they feel ‘at home’ there. Their lives are in tune with the changes that nature’s seasons bring. This regularity, unchanging year after year, is a source of comfort to them, but now, as each feels their lives somehow slipping away from them, it also feels like a trap. As the novel opens, each of these siblings wonders in their own way if there might not be more to see and experience in the world than the peaceful seclusion of their family.
In the more urban centre of town resides Midge Connors, a young woman fast losing hope of a life that does not include violence or despair. She is the last of her siblings living at home, watching her parents tearing (quite literal) pieces out of each other day after day. After a particularly brutal confrontation with her father, Midge finds herself alone and injured in a cold, wet field.
A field, we discover, belonging to Bird Keegan, who finds her there in her confused state, and takes her back to the safety of the farm.
The collision of these two worlds – the Keegans’ and Midge’s – is the catalyst for the lives of these characters being taken in new, unexpected directions. It’s as though an electric shock runs through each of them, giving them the motivation and confidence to take action.
By the stage at which we are returned to 2016 in Oregon, a lot has happened. These characters experience love and loss; tenderness and violence; poverty, illness, romance. They encounter fear and hope; the comforts of home and the excitement of travel. Yet Jameson masterfully structures the narrative and portrays the characters in a way that grounds these events so much in real, human emotion that it never, in my opinion, feels melodramatic. It could easily have felt chaotic and over-saturated, but it didn’t.
The pace is rather slow initially, but I think this is necessary to really get readers involved with these characters. When I’m reading, I want to understand characters, to be given reasons to stay with them on their journeys in the story, and Jameson does that in the opening chapters of This Family of Things. This initial calm pace also reflects the regularity of the Keegans’ lives, which then provides a fantastic contrast to the upheavals that occur later.
The rural Irish landscape surrounding the Keegan’s farm is a beautifully imposing and particularly memorable feature of the narrative. The simultaneous brutality and peaceful seclusion it conveys makes it part of the stories being told, reflecting and influencing the lives of the characters. I also adored the humour running through the novel: it lightened the tone at important moments, but I also recognised it from some of my own Irish relatives.
Though there are moments in this novel that are incredibly dark and brutal, there’s always a sense of hope in every character that they will find happiness, freedom, or simply peace with the way they have chosen to live their lives. I think that’s incredibly important, and one of my favourite aspects of Jameson’s narrative here: that no matter how many knocks these characters take, they somehow find the strength to move forward.
Full of joy and heartbreak in equal measure, this is a wonderful novel that, I hope, will have you turning the pages with intrigue as I did.