You wait for one intriguing novel, and a bagful arrive at once. I’ve been really lucky with the books I’ve picked up recently (I am quite choosy), and Helen Kitson’s accomplished The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson is one of my favourites.
Gabrielle Price, the author of a critically-acclaimed novel in her youth, is now a single, middle-aged woman living off her royalties and her part-time job housekeeping for the local vicar. We sense early on that there’s a control to the narrative voice which works to establish Gabrielle’s character as living a life that is, ‘from choice, as buttoned-up as a winter coat.’ But here the resemblance to a Pym heroine ends. Gabrielle is haunted by the runaway success of her only novel, and by her memories of her childhood friend, Madeleine. On commenting, rather banally, on the weather to the vicar, she tells us,
‘This wasn’t me speaking, it was “Miss Price”: the part I played; an analgesic against the world outside, by which I mean the past and the uncertain future and all the knotted threads of my life.’
However, despite always feeling herself to be the second fiddle to the more confident, talented Madeleine, we soon realise that there is far more to this middle-aged woman than she is perhaps happy to reveal.
The arrival of Simon, ‘a stupidly handsome young man of twenty-three or so with … a diffident smile on the prettiest male face I’d ever seen’, signals a shift in the tempo of Gabrielle’s days. He is a fan of her novel and wants to write too; very quickly he inveigles his way into Gabrielle’s life and he will cause her to reflect again on past events. This novel steers clear of the clichés that such a scenario might invite – instead, Kitson’s characters are knotty, and unpredictable.
I enjoyed the fact that it is a complex middle-aged woman who is at the heart of this novel. She knows herself well, foibles and all, and she is a fairly honest depiction of how many of us will, given the opportunity, take the path of least resistance. As a consequence, she is both fascinating and sometimes frustrating, something Kitson plays to strong effect.
Kitson has also captured perfectly the way we look for meaning in actions, both our own and those of others, retrospectively seeking to justify or make sense of the way life turns out. I really enjoyed her prose style, and the themes of memory, identity and the creative experience are developed in thought-provoking ways. I’ll be looking out her poetry, and eagerly awaiting her next novel.