Novelists usually write about relationships. Margaret Forster, in her non-fiction as well as her fiction, concentrates on one aspect – family relationships. She does it very well.
I’ve just finished reading Forster’s 'Isa and May'. It’s a novel polarised around Isamay’s (heroine/narrator) account of her two grandmothers - middle-class Isa, determined to shape the world to her bidding, working class May, stoical in every way. Flesh and blood from different generations, the interplay between them, the hopes and tribulations, all the stuff and matter of family life, are grist to Forster’s mill.
She adheres to the Jane Austen formula, men are discussed and described offstage but they do not take place in scenes where there are no women present. If I say this is a woman’s book I do Forster a disservice. As a man I found it fascinating. It’s about inheritance, genetic above all else. And that is finally the woman’s ultimate reality. And the book is from this perspective. But the men in it remain shadowy figures. Even Ian the reluctant father of Isamay's child.
Whereas the woman characters seem vital and real – even when they are dissembling. When I was at university my grandmother asked me why did I like reading novels so much. I replied with the confidence of youth. ‘I am not a Catholic but I can read ‘The Power and the Glory’ and gain an understanding. Likewise ‘Jane Eyre’ and being a woman. Or Quiet Flows the Don, and being a communist.’
It’s more complicated than that. But I feel that way about this novel. It reminded me of Lauris Edmond’s ‘Late Poems’ with their lovely descriptions of her grandchildren and the continuity of the line. Her Kiwi experience though did not have the class-consciousness that hovers still over writing from England.
I won’t tell you more about ‘Isa and May’. It would be a shame to spoil the plot. But I enjoyed it so much it’s kept my birthday books at bay. And I realise now that I never did talk to my grandparents about their younger years. I did ask my mother those questions. I’m pleased I did for it built up a bigger picture – a sensitive, sensuous, shy young woman, a tomboy at heart, undereducated and under-estimated. Interesting. I put Forster down – a novel about connections - and started thinking about my mother.
And my father. Killed, when I was five. I basically lost touch with his family. I had Mum's father as mentor for seven years and then Dick my stepfather until my maturity. They were good role models. But I realise I missed out on learning about half the genetic stock from which I've emerged. I further realise my lot is also the lot of many humans down the ages. Forster's novel assumes a family. Or does it?
Connections rather than relationships – that’s its theme. And it's different.