The bald fact is that Enid Campbell sold her son to her sister Joan for £500 after a protracted legal wrangle throughout the 1920’s. A Perfect Explanation might appear from that premise to be an eccentric tale of eccentric characters but it’s actually a beautiful, eloquent and powerful exploration of contemporary issues and concerns; love, loss, family, duty, gender politics, post partum depression, sexuality and mental health. This novel oozes compassion and understanding, it is intelligent and insightful. A Perfect Explanation is a remarkable read; the way in which Anstruther turns a family skeleton in the cupboard, an outlier, into a compelling universal drama is very impressive. This novel will have you gripped with all the force of a thriller and as emotionally attached like a limpet.

Two things occurred to me as soon as I had finished the novel. First, the boy, seventeen at the time, just short of his majority, was Anstruther’s father. The fact that he was sold by her grandmother to her great aunt was well known in the family. It was, however, never discussed, never explained, it was just accepted. Eventually, having her own family prompted Anstruther to want to understand what actually happened. This meant uncovering the story, questioning her father and the family archives, (fortunately there are very extensive family records for research). Having collated the material for the story and grasped her own understanding of the events that happened Anstruther could have told an insider’s tale, in a sense taking one side or the other. However, Anstruther managed to distance herself, adopt the dispassionate approach of the writer, unbiasing her account making it all the more powerful for allowing the characters to have a real voice. I think this novel went through a number of drafts and changes so the final form wasn’t arrived out without years of thought and work. Finally, Anstruther chose to tell the story from three points of view; the mother, Enid, the sister, Joan and the daughter, Finetta without moralising. I imagine many people would judge Enid by the fact that she sold her son. Whereas, and this is always the case, life is much more complex than that. Enid becomes a living breathing character, complex, flawed and damaged, she is not judged by Anstruther for her actions but uderstood. I doubt anyone will have the same opinion of Enid at the end of the novel if they do begin by condemning her at the start.

It’s a quirk of fiction that the most extraordinary stories are those that have their origins in real human affairs and this is a prefect example of truth proving stranger than fiction. In lesser hands this story could come across as a curio or an idiosyncratic tale but Anstruther has taken something that might appear marginal and imbued it with psychological depth and great emotional understanding. A Perfect Explanation will brings it home to everyone just how connected we all are, how common our unhappinesses and joys can be. If you’re not struck by the strangeness of the premise of this novel I’d be very surprised but the measure of Anstruther’s story telling prowess is that we quickly come to see the story as a human tragedy born of the same emotions and issues as any love story, any family conflict. So pretty quickly we are not judging bad behaviour or peculiarity but empathising with the grotesque and cruel whims of the gods. From the first page Anstruther has an engaging, lyrical, elegant style. Ask yourself how well do you know your own family history? There are probably dark secrets somewhere in the past. And, who isn’t familiar with sibling rivalry and family disputes?

1964. There is a wonderful contrast at the start of the novel between Finetta, the daughter, a forty-four year old divorcee who has a freedom in life that contrasts that of her mother. Enid married young and never got to live the life she wanted to pursue – she wanted to be a nun. As Finetta gets ready to visit her mother in a nursing home the mundane and matter of fact acts of self-preparation are set against the deeply felt family issues that run through her head. The contrast between the important and the trivial is stark and forceful. Similarly, at the Hampstead nursing home, a nurse is brushing Enid’s hair ready for her visitor as she too weighs the past. She remembers the son she dotes on and the daughter she tolerates. Yet, Finetta thinks of her mother;

“…there was either feeling, or there wasn’t, and neither force – ambivalence nor adoration – had dissuaded her from duty…Now she found herself back in the role for which she was made and in which she felt the least and most comfortable – that of looking after her mother.”

Carol, the nurse, let’s it slip that Enid’s son, Ian, is coming to visit, they haven’t met for decades. Enid panics, demands to talk to her daughter to cancel the visit, she even claims she doesn’t have a son. And for the first time we get a glimpse of what has put her in this turmoil, she says;

“I had no choice”

But the nursing staff don’t understand at all.

1921 – Enid father is the younger son of the 8th Duke of Argyll, the older brother left the family for the royal household after marrying Princess Louise. So the responsibility for the family home, Inveraray, fell on her father. Sybil brought up the family when her husband died, then the heir was killed by a Turkish bullet at Ivar during WWI. Primogeniture did not apply and Sybil wanted the family fortune to go to a male heir. Enid wanted her freedom not duty, not marriage and motherhood but Sybil applied pressure to Enid.

Finetta was born and then a son, Enid loved the ‘clumsy’ boy, no one discussed his health but he was deemed unfit to inherit. A second son, Ian, was born. The son that years later, after a protracted legal dispute, Enid, would sell to her sister for £500. The story that unfolds between the three accounts and two time period is fascinating. You will feel better for reading this novel.

Paul Burke 5/5

A Perfect Explanation by Eleanor Anstruther
Salt 9781784631642 pbk Mar 2019