A Lifetime Burning by Linda Gillard
|A Lifetime Burning by Linda Gillard|
|Genre: Women's Fiction|
|Reviewer: Sue Fairhead|
|Summary: Potentially disturbing themes in an unusual format of story-telling, lead to a remarkable and thought-provoking novel.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 408||Date: June 2006|
|External links: Author's website|
One should never judge a book by its cover. But, of course, we do. I would never have bought this book - one glance at the unpleasant image on the front would have made me replace it hurriedly on the shelf. I wasn't enthralled by the blurb, either: 'disturbing themes', '.. damned from birth'...
So I wondered what I had let myself in for when I picked up this book, which I had agreed to read for The Bookbag.
The prologue is unusual, and piqued my curiosity. It's set in the year 2000 and narrated by Flora, at her own funeral. She looks at each of her family members, and tells us a little about them and her relationship with them. It's a clever opening to a remarkable novel.
The next section takes us back to 1942. Dora, who had given up hope of having children, finally gives birth to twins: Flora and Rory. And then we leap forward to 1987, with Dora and Flora having an argument about morality. Then there's another section - in a different font - narrated by Flora from beyond the grave.
This style continues through the book. At first I found it confusing, seeing little snapshots of the family at different stages in their lives. Every so often I had to check back to see what year I was in, and what had just happened, but as a technique it works extremely well. The switch from third person narration to Flora's own memories seems to break the rules of novel-writing, but that too is very effective. I felt almost as if I were reading the book with Flora looking over my shoulder, filling in the gaps with her recollections and interpretations of events.
The characters are distinct and seem real, so much so that I cared what happened to them all. Flora marries Hugh, an older clergyman who is likeable and generous, but they don't make each other happy. Rory marries Grace, a musician like himself. Their marriage is a little better, but still has some serious problems. Grace and Flora have a love-hate relationship, and between them produce three rather delightful children who get along extremely well.
And yes, the themes are disturbing. Or could be, in the hands of a sensationalist writer. The book features unrequited love, lust, the destruction of dreams, depression, and incestuous relationships. There is adultery, and promiscuity, and betrayal of trust. But Linda Gillard treats these themes with amazing sensitivity. She takes us inside the characters - particularly Flora, but also Rory and Hugh - and their actions make sense in the context of their circumstances.
An ongoing theme of the book is whether or not it is 'better to marry than to burn with lust' (as St Paul says in the Biblical First Epistle to the Corinthians). Flora believes that she has burned - in many senses of the word - all through her life, despite having married such a nice man.
The writing is excellent, the twists and turns of the plot unexpected, but not unbelievable; shocking, but not as disturbing as they could have been. I have no idea how the author managed the plotting, revealing the story gradually through so many different time periods. It works extremely well. The prologue gives clues about what happens right the way through the novel, but the full picture is not clear until the end. As soon as I'd finished, I went back to the beginning and read the prologue and first couple of sections again.
I'm sure the people in this book will remain in my mind for some time to come. Highly recommended. I have to say, though, each time I put the book down during the week, I carefully turned it face down so I would not see the image on the front.
Many thanks to the author for sending this book which I would not otherwise have read!
If you enjoyed this, you would probably also enjoy Linda Gillard's other novels; other thought-provoking and unusual love stories can be found in The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger or Glittering Images by Susan Howatch.
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