One of my favorite books of the year (and if you want to see my top books and possibly win a selection, go here) is without question Kate Mayfield’s debut novel, The Parentations. Now I mention that I get quite nervous about books because I have to constantly smell salts in my library, which I don’t, but the size (500 pages) and premise of this book (immortality) originally got me thinking. Still, I was quickly wrapped up in this novel and reminded that there can be nothing better than a big, chunky book with an incredible story, and that is quite a story indeed.
OneWorld, hardback, 2018, fiction, 500 pages, kindly sent by the publisher
You’re not even sure he’s still alive. They had tossed ideas about him so often and for so many years that they had created a shared fantasy about the kind of man he might have become. He could still be a boy, they thought. They also thought he might be dead. You have no way of knowing.
Parenthood begins in 2015 when the lawless sisters are waiting for three things. The first is the day they can look for a boy they see as a son. In a certain place they return every year, not knowing if he is still alive, but always hoping. The second is for regular sleep that each of them need for a long time while the other is awake. The third is a shipment of some kind of medicine. We then whiz across London to the Fowler household, where a similar broadcast is supposed to arrive and where some members of the house are also trying to find a secret stash of it, which they believe is hidden. To find out what connects these two households and why they are waiting for this tincture, we must go back a few hundred years to a volcanic eruption in Iceland that reveals a pool of immortality.
Now I will first admit that I was a bit ‘riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight’, but we will soon be completely with Stefan in 1783 when this volcanic eruption took hold of the island and how he soon became a kind of guardian for it as soon as he stumbled upon this pool becomes. Over a couple of hundred years (which Mayfield skilfully and quickly guides us through), more people are drinking from the pool creating a secret community. This includes a couple who have a child with special gifts that must be sent away and hidden as it appears that his immortal secret has been discovered by those who wish to use it for harm. This way we land back in London in the early 19th century, and it is from here that history, already overcrowded, takes its full Gothic twist and vigor when we join the lives of the Fowlers and Lawless Sisters and see you like them Life becomes intertwined. I’m not going to say more on the plot because I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns and delicious romp you have in front of you.
No movement is detected at nine o’clock. A group of women came forward. They paid a large sum to test the wonders of the gallows. A woman bares her breasts. A hanged man’s hand is believed to heal tumors. She climbs onto the scaffolding. She’s not afraid, not hesitating, as she takes Finn’s hand in hers. Just as she lifts it to her chest, his head rolls and his eyes open to meet hers. The woman faints.
If you love anything gothic you are going to love this book, especially if you like your gothic Victorian and who doesn’t? Mayfield takes us through the darker parts of London’s societies and streets, from orphanages to large houses, from prisons to the gallows and everything in between. We have dramatic deaths, murders, cheeky gimmicks of all kinds, all at that “sensational” pace and conspiracy that people like Wilkie Collins enjoyed so much. You know Mayfield is having a lot of fun as she writes this and a great pleasure to be part of it. She also builds this dark and brooding London in all of its shady layers to life. Also, what you have is Clovis Fowler, one of my new favorite fictional bad guys. I’m just going to give you a glimpse of how your husband sees you below. To whet your appetite, she could almost give Ms. Danvers from Lydia Gwilt a run for her money.
“Finn, I prefer that you don’t eat in the bedroom.”
‘They prefer? Another word that you picked up on in your lectures? I will eat where I want. ‘
“I thought you would like it. I’m trying to improve my English. ‘
Clovis waits for an answer, but he eats and drinks and gets tired – tired of her. The beauty of his wife no longer interests him. There is no such thing as a dress, simple or intricate design that can darken her luscious body, but he no longer has the addiction he once did for her. In doing this, most men would think he was pretty crazy or a sodomite, but a man, especially a man like Finn, doesn’t like being used and the feeling in his device goes limp when he thinks of her tricks. So he eats in silence.
But under all this raging and feeling there are some incredibly moving moments and thoughts that are subject to the parents. The immortality, which I felt a bit “riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight” at first, goes from the best one can ask for to the ultimate curse. How do you have to take care of yourself when you have to try to live forever? What situations do you need to avoid? As some of your fellow human beings, how do you deal with the fact that you are getting old and dying? What must it be like to want to die and be incapable? The other particularly poignant part of the novel is how we see how society and culture evolve and change over the years, and how some of the characters we love but may not experience to benefit from those changes would benefit from it . I found that incredibly emotional.
This again shows the brilliance of Mayfield’s writing. Your characters are wonderful, even the ones you are supposed to hate (yes, the fabulous Clovis) and with all their complexity and how they change in the most subtle ways over time – another interesting element of the book – and as they try to survive what life throws at them. Mayfield also writes about the shift in those periods and the atmosphere and changes in London over the course of 2015 without beating you over the head with changes in technology, decor, etc. It reminds you exactly of the decade you are in.
The room is indeed dripping. A frayed lampshade lets a sick, yellow glow fall into a gray corner that can keep up with the afternoon clouds. A dingy blue blanket curling over the single bed can’t disguise the lumpy mattress. In this rented room in Pimlico, next to a small, unused Victorian fireplace, sits a weathered Lusty chair meant for a garden and cocktails. It’s noisy, a little smelly, and a hidden paradise. Kay Starr sings from a battered portable gramophone. Two men stand intertwined in a small moon-shaped room in the middle of the room. Dancing naked is unbearably exciting. Jonesy lets David take the lead.
As I said earlier, The Parentations was an instant hit for me, making it one of my previous books of the year. I have no doubt that it will be one of my books of the year since I closed the last page. These characters and their stories have a place in my heart that continues to grow. Go take it in your hands. Right now.