There is nothing better to warm yourself up at a book launch in an unheated Congregational Chapel in East Sussex than hearing heartening words from bestselling author Salley Vickers.

Here to launch her latest novel, Grandmothers, at an event hosted by the marvellous independent shop Much Ado Books, which is located in the beautiful medieval village of Alfriston, Salley was interviewed by Paul Bryers, also a local author. Tickets for the event sold out soon after it was advertised, so despite the rain and a lack of lighting down the alley to the old chapel, many had made their pilgrimage. I had already been given a heads up by someone that we were in for a ‘special guest’ too and we found we were joined by another Salley Vickers fan (and friend), the actor Larry Lamb.

Salley Vickers is an established and well-loved author. Her writing is crafted in the vein of Penelope Fitzgerald, with thoughtful ideas and delicate dialogue. She also manages to breathe life into buildings, spectacularly so with her novel The Cleaner of Chartres. The recent exploration of family in Cousins perhaps laid the groundwork for her latest novel and her past work dealing with the thoughts and minds (often broken) of patients bears fruit in her ability to negotiate complicated emotions.

So why the title Grandmothers? Was it perhaps a bit niche and might it only appeal to a certain type of reader (i.e. grandmothers!). Salley explained her need to explore the role as she was now a grandmother. “My children were my degree, now my grandchildren are my PhD”. Many women I know who are already grandmothers state how the role is so different from being a direct parent. It’s not just being able to hand back the children and spoil them without guilt. Salley spoke about how her relationships with her two biological grandmothers and also a strong link with her godmother shaped her life. Salley also felt it showed the male perspective on how (in the case of all three main characters in the book) the absent male grandfather and the bridging between fathers and their children brings challenges to the familial love.

Despite the gap that seemingly exists between the older generations and the younger, between the millennials and the baby boomers who have stolen all the money, it is the more emotional ties that link grandmothers to their grandchildren. They are the lynchpins and have time.

One character, Nan, is subversive and Salley laughed as to whether this was how she saw herself as a grandmother. The plot allowed her the opportunity to voice her scorn – politics, modern methods of education and sexuality all come in for criticism through the characters. Although confirming that the story is not based on her own family, she did use quite a few anecdotes and scenes that reflected actual episodes with her grandchildren. “I never plan”, she says of her writing process. But somehow things, places and experiences seep through as she writes, and this novel perhaps reflects more personal episodes than she actually wanted to reveal. Look out for seaside fish and chips!

Place is important. Geography is written from her life. She needs to know the locality. Having trained as a psychoanalyst, her minute observations make the writing riveting and detailed. Are we lulled into her writing she was asked? Definitely. And Grandmothers does draw you along in some comfortable scenes and then, WOW!, there’s a stunning turn to a life that was seemingly just rolling along towards death. I wasn’t expecting this as a reader but in the overall concept of the three characters, Nan, Blanche and Minna, it is also the grandchildren that prove the key to the adults and allow them time to grow too. It is also for the three women a chance to develop and finally come to terms with aspects of their lives that have been hidden deep away.

In the past, Dancing Backwards was a novel borne out of that seeping experience. Enjoying a cruise on the rather posh Queen Mary II, Salley learnt to ballroom dance. She was guided, taught and felt as if, within the cruise ship, she was like a character in a Jane Austen village. From this, she later used what had been an internal train of thought that had been planted with the dancing and then became a physical situation that she wanted to develop into another story.

Salley has such an interesting past working life. As a psychoanalyst she worked with those with congenital heart defects, those with inherited trauma (such as holocaust survivors) and war veterans, where she was involved in the early stages of diagnosing post-traumatic stress disorder. She has a depth of wide human understanding and, when asked how it felt to kill off one of her characters, stated it wasn’t a powerful feeling of life and death in her hands but that in her own world she had no fear of death. In fact, she explained that she had even considered retraining as a medical barrister as she loved to study medical ethics. Death, time and memory are three consistent things she writes about and they feature clearly in Grandmothers.

The story is of three very different women and their relationships with the younger generation: fiercely independent Nan, who leads a secret life as an award-winning poet when she’s not teaching her grandson, Billy, how to lie. Elegant Blanche, who, deprived of the company of her beloved granddaughter Kitty by her hostile daughter-in-law, seeks solace in drink and takes to shoplifting. Then shy Minna, bookish, who is often found in her shepherd’s hut, which she shares with her surrogate granddaughter Rosie, where they share their passion for reading. When the outlook of the women begins to alter after they encounter each other and share and open up, both the grandmothers and the grandchildren will realise the past is always with them but that you can learn and sometimes change to keep those precious connections.

Interestingly, the design of the book, a hardback with a children’s old-fashioned look about it, was in itself controversial. The style had started with her previous novel, The Librarian, as Salley felt this was appropriate, but it seemed Waterstone’s were not initially keen to use it again. But as you’ll see, Salley got her way! It’s a thing of beauty with a cover picture taken from a painting by Vanessa Bell. It will certainly feature as a present I feel for many grandmothers this Christmas as well as a beautiful volume to have on your bookshelf.

An excellent evening with an author with much to add to how and why her novels are written. I have not always been engrossed by all her work but now knowing more about her I feel more of an inclination to dive back into other offerings that maybe I overlooked. I also liked her immensely as a person who raised issues around our own mortality with which I had been struggling for some time and was heartened to hear she felt just the same. Despite not being a grandmother (not yet perhaps!), I enjoyed the book as a personal read and I am sure book clubs (by the amount of book club members at the event that evening showed) will absolutely love it.

Philipa Coughlan 4/5

Grandmothers by Salley Vickers
Viking 9780241371411 hbk Nov 2019