Alan Querry is a successful property developer in the north-east. Although he now lives in an affluent area of Northumberland, he grew up in an upwardly-mobile working-class family and often questions whether he really belongs amongst the landed-gentry he is now surrounded by. As the story starts his company is experiencing problems and his financial situation is looking somewhat precarious – worrying enough in itself but exacerbated by the fact that he is having to pay expensive care home fees for his elderly mother. He has two daughters: the elder, emotionally frail Vanessa, is living with her much younger boyfriend, Josh, in Saratoga Springs, NY and teaching philosophy at a local college. Helen, two years younger and now married with two young children, lives in London and has a successful career as an executive in the music industry. Although neither sister has ever quite recovered from their parents’ acrimonious divorce, and their mother’s subsequent death, Helen is more outwardly self-confident and emotionally robust, whilst Vanessa has suffered periods of serious depression since being a teenager.
In early January Helen receives an email from Josh, expressing serious concern about Vanessa’s increasingly fragile mental health, even questioning whether a recent fall was a suicide attempt. He asks her if she would try to fit in a visit when she is next in New York on business and, feeling concerned by his sense of panic, she readily agrees to do so in early February. When she tells Alan, he shares her concern and agrees to join her in New York City and then to travel upstate with her to visit Vanessa for a few days.
Set in 2007, shortly before the start of the global financial crisis, this story covers the six-day period of Alan and Helen’s visit, in the depths of winter, to Vanessa’s home. Through Alan’s reflections, both before and during this trip, the reader gradually learns about his background – about his childhood; the successful but now ailing business he established; his first marriage and his acrimonious divorce the death of his first wife and the comfort he finds in his relationship with his partner Candace, a Buddhist psychotherapist, of whom neither of his daughters approves. These are experiences which have not only formed him but have also affected how he relates to his daughters. Through the additional reflections of Vanessa and Helen the family dynamics are revealed, making sense of the difficulties they all experience in communicating how they feel, both about themselves and about each other.
This is a quietly reflective novel which explores the complexities of family relationships and how the same family experiences can have profoundly different effects on each member of the family. The story encourages reflection on questions about why some people find living so much harder than others; whether happiness can be learnt, or is it, as Vanessa reflects “… just a trick of birth, a completely accidental blessing, like perfect pitch” and whether reflection is helpful to happiness, or an obstacle to it? The author compassionately explores some of these questions through the eyes of Alan who, as a loving father recognises that Helen had always seemed to find happiness easy whilst Vanessa always found it difficult. He torments himself with the ubiquitous concerns of all caring parents: of wanting to find ways of making everything right for their children and to spare them pain and distress but, ultimately, having to acknowledge that any real control over this lies with the “child”, whatever their age.
The author captures the ways in which these three characters struggle to discuss the things which are important to them (especially the “elephant in the room” which prompted this visit) and how the very fact of spending this intense period of time together all too often results in them resorting to old, defensive ways of interacting, especially when feeling challenged. For example, in an interchange with Helen Alan makes the comment “You know you’re being hurtful and completely impossible, and above all . . . extremely unhelpful.” This is followed by “He hadn’t meant to use that last word and it struck them both comically. But because they were imprisoned in their argument they were not permitted to smile, and instead lapsed into a childish, stubborn silence.” I find it hard to believe that there are many people who, on reading that passage, won’t recognise this particular scenario!
I found his leisurely, well-paced style of storytelling and his use of language a delight. As there is little conventional “action”, the story depends on the intensity of the interactions between the characters and their individual reflections on both past and present events. Throughout his story-telling I felt captivated by the ways in which he made each of them come alive. There was a powerful intensity about the ways in which he conveyed the devastating effects of depression, not only on the person who is depressed but also on family and friends and, at times, this made the story quite painful to read. However, there were also some much lighter moments, so the balance felt right.
In addition to the psychological credibility of the story, I also enjoyed the author’s use of his characters to reflect on politics, consumerism, capitalism, technology and to highlight differences between British and American views and attitudes. Amongst Alan’s more serious ponderings on his efforts to understand America and Americans (so many of which would thought-provoking discussion for reading groups!) are some rather more humorous ones. Just one example – “he’d read somewhere that Americans use, per capita, three times as many sheets of toilet paper a day as the global average, which told him what he needed to know”!
I also appreciated the many ways in which he evocatively captured a sense of place, particularly with his descriptions of the snowy, wintry landscape of Saratoga Springs. Two descriptions which captured something so essential about living in a snowy landscape were:
“It was very cold, the air was thin, stilled: in the late afternoon light everything had an atmosphere of earnest preparation for the long, bitter night ahead” and, of watching the snow fall: “It was coming down fast, in the passive aggressive way of snow, stealthy but relentless, insisting on its own white agenda.”
I think that these quotes capture something of the poetic beauty of his use of language.
The publisher’s “blurb” promised a story “Rich in subtle human insight, full of poignant and often funny portraits, and vivid with a sense of place, Upstate is a perceptive, intensely moving novel” and, for this reader, that promise was fulfilled.
Linda Hepworth 5/5
Upstate by James Wood
Vintage 9781784708054 pbk Mar 2019