This is the fourth in Melvyn Bragg’s autobiographical quartet of novels about Joe Richardson, the working-class boy we first meet as a child of seven in The Soldier’s Return (HNR 10). Joe is now in his final year at Oxford in 1960, hurting from the love affair so tenderly evoked in Crossing the Lines. At a party, he meets Natasha, a French art student several years his senior, also nursing a lover’s rejection. With moving, microscopic intensity, Bragg explores their relationship over the following decade, the nature of marital love and conjugal loyalty at a time of rapid social change, London in the Sixties, superbly drawn. Joe, idealistic, romantic, works for the BBC, also writes film scripts and fiction, swept into the spirit of the times, growing his hair and abandoning his tweed sports jacket for crushed velvet. Natasha, captivated by his zest for life, suppresses anxieties, inner darkness and a troubled childhood.
The novel is a confessional to their daughter, a brave use of knowledge and imagination to reconstruct the past. Sometimes Bragg breaks from the narrative to address her directly. For the reader, there is the temptation to put real names to fictional faces. Yet the novel demands more than this. In intimate, powerful detail, Bragg captures the emotions that bind two people together and the subtle shifts in thought and feeling that can prise them apart. He adopts an authorial viewpoint, frequently jumping from one character’s thoughts to another’s. This I found a distraction, as I did the references to ultimate tragedy, so that I was waiting for it to happen. Nothing, however, can detract from the empathy, insight, the visceral emotional honesty of the writing of two damaged characters unable to communicate, and the tormenting power of memory years later.