My hardback review copy of Raffaella Barker’s latest novel From a Distance (released May 2014) came courtesy of a Goodreads giveaway. And what a beautifully packaged book it is too. David Mann’s jacket designs are gorgeous and this one is no exception.
From a Distance has two parallel stories. The first starts in 1946 when returning soldier Michael gets off his ship in Southampton and instead of turning right to go home to Norfolk, where his parents and unexciting girlfriend Janey are waiting, decides he can’t face life with them yet and turns left to Cornwall.
The contemporary story is told from two different points of view – the first is Luisa’s and the second is Kit’s. A mother of three, Luisa is consumed by her busy domestic life at Green Farm House. She worries about her eldest daughter who has flown the nest on a gap year. A gap year? On a teacher’s salary when a three year degree now costs £27,000?
Luisa is half Italian and descended from a family whose business was ice-cream. Since her eldest left home she’s been busy working on a food start-up, resurrecting the family ice-cream business. And it is the foodie descriptions of making ice-cream which I enjoyed the most about this book, and where I felt that the writer really lets rip describing these pleasures. Food, it seems, is Luisa’s substitute for a satisfying love life.
Her teacher husband, Tom seems distant and busy with work. His pet name for Luisa is Tod and he pats her on the shoulder and says stuff like, ‘good effort, Tod,’ No wonder she’s interested when Kit from Cornwall walks into her life.
Kit runs a successful textile business and has been so busy with work that he’s had no time for love since his wife died. His mother left him a lighthouse in Norfolk, tenanted and taken care of by a lawyer. He’s been too busy (and presumably wealthy enough) until now to bother to even go look at his new holiday home. Lucky old Kit.
This book is beautifully written with lovely descriptions and details yet is let down by characters who don’t seem to have any flaws and there are occasional weaknesses in some of the dialogue too. The pace of the two stories is too slow and I skipped some of the more introspective parts of the historical story in the first half. It was either that, or give up and it isn’t until the last third that there is any real momentum to the story.
When Luisa and Kit meet at the lighthouse the meeting seems forced. Luisa catches Kit talking to the trespassing sheep and for some strange reason, ‘he decided to call them all Virginia.’ And then he starts to talk to one and introduces himself with a ‘do you like it here, Virginia?’ Most women would have beaten a hasty retreat by now, but Luisa isn’t so easily put off. There is a lot of banter in this scene with dialogue that is both clumsy and awkward. There are only so many gags you can make about trespassing sheep and there is little here that drives the story or reveals character, which I found irritating.
There are a number of references to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Kit’s mother had an inscribed copy, the inscription which reads: ‘I still dream of you.’ Kit has never read the book ‘and probably wouldn’t do now, he’d never been keen on those novels about nothing much.’ And of course there’s the lighthouse on the book cover, with its potent sexual imagery. And for some odd reason Luisa too has a sudden thought about Virginia Woolf when trying to balance a toy lighthouse on one of her showstopper desserts at Kit’s housewarming.
While I bought into Luisa’s life I found it harder to be convinced by some of Michael’s introspection in the post-war story. Some of his concerns seem to be rather too 21st century for a returning soldier. Michael’s love interest in Cornwall is fabric designer Felicity. Michael frets that he doesn’t belong in that world of the artists’ community but the trouble is I am none the wiser what that world was from this novel. Michael is happy with his life with Felicity and when his son is born his life should be complete. Yet it is at this point he decides it’s now time to go back to his old life in Norfolk, a motivation, which I don’t really comprehend. So he abandons his son, which his girlfriend accepts without so much as a murmur, yet alone a demand for financial support and Michael returns to Janey and has two children with her. Janey too is the forgiving sort and lets Michael off the hook by telling him he doesn’t need to tell her what he’s been up to in Cornwall.
In the contemporary story, Luisa and Kit continue to flirt by text message as Luisa by now has the hots for her new neighbour and him with her. Luisa frocks up in her most revealing dress and they dance together at Kit’s housewarming party while Tom, Luisa’s husband barely notices.
But the big reveal of the story means it’s impossible for these two to be together, which is a big let down. This is, after all, Middle England. Luisa has to put her sexuality away and button up her cardigan and go back to making different flavours of ice-cream. Yet it was Luisa herself who tells us, ‘today, Luisa found she was suffused with a gnawing regret for the things she had never done. She hadn’t ridden a motorbike, she hadn’t lived in another country, and she hadn’t kissed the wrong man.’ You just wish she had.