Author: Sara Maitland
Details: (c) Sara Maitland 1993; Pub 1994 Sceptre (Hodder and Stoughton); ISBN 0-340-60968-0
Verdict: Home Truths is a rich piece of writing with lovely characterization.
Reasons for reading it: I had a friend who was really into Sara Maitland, and I enjoyed some of her short stories. I was a bit disappointed with the novel of hers I came across, Brittle Joys, but picked this up because my parents read it a while ago and found it interesting.
How it came into my hands: One of the local charity shops, I think the Brittle Bone Society one just round the corner.
Home Truths is mainly about a close family coping with the aftermath of a disabling accident. As such, it's hard to avoid over-identifying, or comparing the book's account to my own experiences, rather than judging it as a novel on its own terms. There isn't really very much plot as such; the whole novel takes place over the space of less than a week, though with quite a lot of flashback sequences and it's mainly a series of portraits of people and their interconnecting relationships. There is sort of a mystery element as Clare tries to piece together the details of her mountaineering accident in the face of amnesia, but that's a very minor aspect of the book.
What I like about HT is that the people really work as people. The relationships between the siblings, the closeness from their shared childhood, the rivalry, the way that they express affection by teasing and how the teasing can spill over into something that's hurtful because they matter so much to eachother. The complex relationships of parents to adult children are beautifully done. I like the portraits of the various partnerships too, there's a really clear sense of both bad and good relationships and exactly how they work. Hester is in some ways quite a bit like my mother, the way she's described as both intelligent and religious, her devotion to both her family and her community which can sometimes come across as her being controlling and interfering, her worry that it's a personal failure if her children are unhappy. But all the people in HT are really impressively believable and very tenderly drawn.
The other thing that's portrayed really well is the way that life doesn't just come to a halt because someone has had a bad accident. Felicity and Bob still have to deal with their daughter's deafness and the effect of that on their relationship, there's the aftermath of Ben's being defrocked as a result of being discovered to be gay, there's Hester and James' worry about how they will cope financially after his imminent retirement, and so on. And all these sub-stories are exquisitely well done.
The portrait of Clare's failed relationship with David is a very compelling one, and really quite chilling. There's a very clear understanding of how she ended up staying in a borderline abusive, certainly unhealthy relationship, even though she was materially independent. The narrative is very sympathetic to her, and deals very movingly with her feelings in response to the death of a man she hated, her confusion and guilt about staying in the relationship in the first place, and not having the 'proper' response to the death of a partner.
Writing about religion is very much a strength of Maitland's. Here the characters have very different and interestingly explored relationships with Christianity. The scene where Hester prays and is shown to have a direct personal relationship with the saints I found fascinating, though incredibly alien to my passionately monotheist way of thinking. Having said that I found the moral message of the book a bit off; the conclusion seems to be that one can not truly appreciate the beauty of existence without taking risks and embracing danger, whether religiously or in other areas of life. This is a message I find rather dubious anyway, and I think this otherwise good book was slightly spoilt by making too much effort to make a point.
HT is fairly slow at times. It's very lush, with a lot of detail, and very dense writing. I think it mostly works, particularly the sense of place and descriptions of spirituality. Clare is a photographer and there's really a strong impression of her highly visual way of relating to the world. That said, it's not the most accessible writing ever, and it does sometimes show the same tendency I noticed in Brittle Joys to get caught up in rather over-written prose. It's a lot less evident in HT though, and I'm prepared to forgive a lot worse flaws for the sake of such magnificent characterization.