This time, four years ago, I published a review of Elizabeth Baines’s collection of short stories, formerly, which I really liked and made me read her new book Astral Travel. Framed as a novel within the novel, this compelling story follows an author who tries to understand her complicated father while writing the story of her family and discovers that her interpretation may be further from the truth than she understands.
A decade after her father’s passed away, Jo begins writing about her wandering, impoverished childhood and her vain attempts to protect her younger sister from her regular beatings, hampered by her mother’s apparent father’s reconciliation. Gwen first met Patrick when she was an awakened young girl who wanted to make a career. Despite the doubts on their side, they get married, but Gwen soon discovers that Patrick’s charming and generous face is very different from the one he shows at home. As their daughters grow older, Patrick turns his anger on them, especially angry at Jo’s intelligent intelligence and tendency to react.
When a son is born, Patrick ignores him until the similarity between them becomes apparent when David becomes the favorite. Over the years, Patrick buys the big house he always dreamed of, and David works with him in his engineering firm. Cathy stays close to home, but Jo moves on, relieved to leave her father behind, but still hurt by the damage he caused. Hoping to finally calm down her difficult childhood, she decides to tell her father’s story and, from memories, family stories and conclusions, reconstruct a version of events with which not everyone in the family agrees.
Baines ‘ novel explores the long shadow of a powered childhood from Jo’s perspective. Jo often reminds us that she is an unreliable narrator who unfolds events as he interprets them. The bitter quarrels of her parents are a constant soundtrack of her childhood, but her mother never comes to defend her daughters, insisting that Jo provokes her father and tries to convince her to appease him. While Jo reveals what she wrote to her mother and Cathy, never David, whom she identifies with Patrick, will fill in the gaps and offer alternative interpretations until her mother finally reveals the unconfirmed source of Patrick’s frustration and anger, something Cathy always seems to have understood. Baines ‘ carefully constructed novel is very engaging, compelling and Jo’s slow and painful understanding of her father. In the end, she finally has her answer and thus some peace when the tyrannical Patrick appears as a desperately unhappy man, miserable by the expectations of a biased society. A beautiful novel written with a lot of skill and empathy.