Book review: Motherland by William Nicholson

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IF YOU read William Nicholson’s article in this section of the paper last week, you will know that he loves love stories. “As a writer,” he said, “I turn just about everything I do into a love story.”


by William Nicholson

Quercus, 544pp, £16.99

So it’s no surprise that Motherland, his fine, fat new novel, is indeed that – more than one love story indeed, even though some of the loves are unhappy, or lead to unhappiness.

Writing about love is, for a serious and ambitious novelist, a bit old-fashioned, a bit 19th century indeed. In other ways too, this is an old-fashioned novel, ample and leisurely, a book that invites the reader to wallow in it. It takes affairs of the heart seriously. It’s nor spiky or clever. It belongs to a genre that, if not threatened with extinction, nevertheless attracts fewer good writers today: the serious middlebrow novel about realistic and mostly likeable people who discuss serious questions: the nature of love, religion, duty, fidelity, self-denial and self-fulfilment. There is action, in the form of war scenes and things go wrong in the characters’ lives; yet the overall impression is that, despite much pain and disappointment, life is good.

It’s the kind of novel that used to be a staple of Boot’s lending library, the kind written by authors like Francis Brett Young, Charles Morgan, and Compton Mackenzie in the first half of his long career. I should say that I mean this as a compliment.

It begins with a prologue set in the present day. A young woman, whose estranged father has told her she comes from a long line of mistakes, visits the grandmother she has never known in her house in Normandy. What follows is the story the grandmother, Pamela tells her, though not in the grandmother’s words.

We go back to the south coast of England, Sussex, in the Second World War. Two girls, Kitty and Louisa, are Army drivers; they are young, charming (especially Kitty), eager for love, and all too aware of the brevity of life. They are based in a large country house; its owner, George, a third generation lord, is unfit for army service. They meet two young officers, Ed and Larry, school friends and Roman Catholics, though only Larry is devout. Both fall in love with Kitty who, while loving Larry, is in love with Ed. Larry, it seems, is cast in the role of best friend and confidant, one he accepts because he is a fundamentally nice chap. Kitty and Ed marry, hurriedly – as often happened in wartime.

Larry is transferred to Mountbatten’s staff, Combined Operations, and both he and Ed take part in the disastrous Dieppe Raid. Larry by his account behaves badly, overcome by fear. Ed is heroic. He wins the Victoria Cross, but is taken prisoner. What happened on the Dieppe beach and as a Commando POW will damage him severely.

It would be wrong to recount beyond this point, because readers who have got this far will be sufficiently caught up in the narrative to want to know what happens to the characters. It’s enough to say that it traces their relations with each other, and Larry’s with the girl he meets when serving after the war on Mountbatten’s staff again in the closing months of our Indian Empire. It’s a story too of things going wrong and failed ambitions, but what makes the novel so impressive, enjoyable, true to life and unusual is Nicholson’s evident affection and sympathy for his characters. They are almost all people in whose company you are happy to spend time.

Nicholson is particularly good at writing about the course of the various marriages, and this is something that is difficult to bring off. In so much classic fiction, love affairs stop at the church door. Nicholson realises that the wedding service brings the easier part of a relationship to an end, and that marriage, even when founded in true love, is a long drawn-out and often disturbing drama. He may turn “just about everything,” he writes , “into a love story”, but he understands – and shows – that love may be subjected to intolerable strains. He talks much about love – his characters talk about love – but the novel is a very long way from what we mostly recognise as romantic fiction.

It is not perfect – almost no novel is perfect, just as few marriages, even apparently happy ones, are perfect. Some scenes and conversations go on too long, continuing well after the point has been made. Yet this fault is venial because in its way the leisurely pace of the novel catches the rhythms of life. He is, by the way, very good on children: Kitty’s daughters ring absolutely true; they are charming without being twee. In short, an unusually warm and intelligent novel.