Sometimes you read a good book, by every measure it’s good, well – perhaps beautifully written, intriguing, interesting, fully described and engaging characters with different sides to their characters, some only hinted at, vivid evocation of setting and place, countryside, seashore, buildings and their interiors, a puzzle to be solved,… and so on. You read and finish this good and yet when you’re thinking about it or telling someone else about it, there’s a hesitation, a hovering ‘but’ as you say ‘it’s really good… but…’. Sometimes it’s really difficult to say what the ‘but’ is, why you qualify it.
‘On Chapel Sands’ by Laura Cumming is a beautifully written book, and with the really intriguing catch of being true and based on actual events, including the mysterious kidnapping and then reappearance of a three year old girl. It is the true story, originally just scraps of a family tale told to Laura by her mother who was the kidnapped child, and then painstakingly, admirably researched, investigated and written about when the truth was discovered.
Laura uses her mother’s words, old photographs, her own memories of past conversations, letters, documents, scraps of ‘evidence’ to reveal what really happened, and perhaps why it happened. When i started it, I couldn’t guess what the end would be, but by the time I got there it wasn’t really a surprise as Laura had unpicked it all bit by tiny bit. She writes in a beautiful, almost poetic way, sometimes deliberately repeating words and phrases to give a rhythm to her writing which did not interfere, but enhanced the narrative.
So why do I have a ‘but’? I guess I began to find it just too detailed, even though it was lightly written, there was just so much, going over and over the events, as she looked at it from every angle. I think we knew early on the what, and soon the how and then the why, but somehow I just wanted it – particularly the last couple of chapters – to be a little more economical, a little more sparse, to let the reader do some of the work. Perhaps I’m not expressing it very well, because I would encourage others to read it, and would be interested to hear their opinions.
What I did take from it however, was a completely different way of writing about family history. I have many stories about my family, and have researched and found out more that I wasn’t told, but I don’t feel confident about writing it other than in odd pieces here. Laura writes her mother’s story (and her own) with her family as characters almost, and puts them in easily imagined and real settings. She brings in other things, nothing to do with those facts, such as William Carlos Williams’ poem ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus‘ which I know very well, and the painting which inspired it by Pieter Brueghel. She also uses the painting by Edouard Vuillard, Interior: Mother and Sister of the Artist, and Old Man and his Grandson, by Ghirlandaio to explore the relationships between the different members of the family.
I guess I did enjoy reading it, and I definitely recommend it, but there are just a few little niggles! Maybe these niggles are things to think about if I ever properly write about my family!