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Book Review: This family of things by Alison Jameson

I happened upon Alison Jameson’s novel This family of things towards the end of April on Twitter. It must have been the feathers on its striking cover which caught my eye and once I’d read the blurb, I was left in no doubt. This was a book written for me.

On his way back up from the yard Bird had seen something white and round – a girl who had curled herself into a ball. Lifting her was like retrieving a ball of newspaper from out of the grass or an empty crisp bag that someone had flung over the ditch. She seemed to lack the bones and meat and muscle of real people. She felt as if she was filled with feathers.

On the day Midge Connors comes hurtling into Bird Keegan’s life, she flings open his small, quiet world. He and his two sisters, Olive and Margaret, have lived in the same isolated community all their lives, each one more alone than the others can know.

Taking in damaged, sharp-edged Midge, Bird invites the scorn of his neighbours and siblings. And as they slowly mend each other, family bonds – and the tie of the land – begin to weigh down on their tentative relationship. Can it survive the misunderstandings, contempt and violence of others?

When I say the book was written for me, it’s because this is a book about characters living outside the mainstream, both geographically and by their nature. While Midge Connors may have lived all her life in Tullyvin, Co. Wicklow, she’s never felt wanted by either of her parents, or the wider community. Left behind by her siblings and treated like the runt of the litter, she tries to look out for her mother and deflect some of her father’s punches and anger. She seems more like a battered and bruised angry pixie, always on the verge of vanishing, than a grown woman. Tossed about by life and thrown from a moving car, it’s little wonder she protects herself with a spiky and defensive nature or by curling up into a ball.

Bird and his sisters, Olive and Margaret, on the other hand, live outside Tullyvin near a lake. Bird works the family farm, in tune with the rhythms of the seasons, his livestock and the farmwork but barely existing once indoors, where the only warmth to be found in the damp farmhouse is in the kitchen. After their father’s death, Olive and Margaret moved out and took their sisterly co-dependency act to the nearby Lodge, where they may have made an altogether cosier home of the house. Their relationship is a strange dance around each other, one which falters every time Bird visits. They desperately need something to shock them into opening up and when Midge lands in Bird’s field and their lives, she’s the catalyst for this but also one of the initial beneficiaries alongside the brother and his sisters.

Alison Jameson captures the sense of place and steady rhythm of nature so well in this book, and it’s one which you can feel the characters moving to especially for the Irish sections of the book set in Co. Wicklow. I liked that no matter how erratic or tentative the characters’ behaviour at times, there is that constant going on around them, and demanding their attention. It links them to the land and that community in a way that they can’t seem to do on their own until Midge and the Keegans’ worlds collide. 

I grew to really care about all the main characters in This family of things; Alison Jameson reveals who they are and, more importantly, why they are in such a way that continually tweaked my understanding of them, much as happens when getting to know someone in real life. With each insight into their behaviour or by their reaction to something happening, a little more of their character was revealed and these small shifts in perspective were like ripples across the lake where they live and gave me goosebumps.

When the action returns to Oregon (where the Prologue’s set), taking some of the characters with it, I struggled a little because that comforting rhythm of the land, livestock and the seasons went with it. And yet this move, or a move, was needed (by at least two of the characters) every bit as much as the changes that come about after Midge careers into the Keegans’ lives. And it’s interesting to see how this change in scene adds yet more nuance to those same characters, some of it surprising, even promising.

This family of things is a deeply affecting novel which focuses in on human behaviour and relationships among a cast of intriguing and, sometimes despite their best efforts, engaging characters. The people of This family of things are lonely and isolated: they are closed off and carrying long-held emotional scars and slights; they are gentle and cruel; they are kind and destructive; they are wilfully blind and at other times have rare insight into themselves and others; they’re not without humour and spirit, stoicism and patience; and some might even have the ability to open up and let others in. This family of things is an odd assortment of life, and shows how complicated and difficult humans make life for themselves, especially when they overthink things and don’t say what’s on their mind. This family of things will stay with me for some time and its characters now have a piece of my bookish heart. Alison Jameson’s novel is a sensitive and moving look at love and loss and the human condition.

This family of things by Alison Jameson was published by Doubleday Ireland yesterday and is available as an ebook and in paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK, Foyles, Wordery and Waterstones. To find out more about Alison Jameson and her books, check out her Author Website, follow her on Twitter or on Facebook

My thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy of the book. 

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