A Perfect Explanation

Written by Eleanor Anstruther
Review by Sarah Johnson

Anstruther’s debut centers on a shocking truth from her family history. Her paternal grandmother Enid Campbell, descendant of the Earls of Argyll, sold her younger son Ian to her sister for £500, following Enid’s divorce and bitter custody battle. Having received her father’s permission to tell his story, and infusing it with details from public court records and private sources, the author brings us into her characters’ thoughts with unvarnished candor and lays bare their flaws alongside the burdens and cruelties of aristocratic life. The novel volleys between the 1920s and 1964, with Enid in a Hampstead nursing home before a prospective family reunion with her daughter and Ian, who she hasn’t seen since she gave him up 25 years earlier. Here she ponders a “perfect explanation” for her life choices, some of which were outside her control.

Emotionally cold, Enid is impossible to like, which makes being within her head uncomfortable. However, as we learn about the context behind her terrible decisions, we come to deeply empathize. After her older brother’s death at Gallipoli, and her sister Joan a confirmed “spinster” (who lived with her lesbian partner), Enid’s mother pushes her to provide an heir. Married to Douglas Anstruther, a man she comes to detest, Enid produces a boy and a girl, but her son Fagus’s physical challenges make him a deficient option in their view, and she feels pressured to try again. Enraptured by religion, particularly Christian Science, Enid never wanted to marry or be a mother; the inside perspective of her descent into postpartum depression, which spurs her to abandon her family, feels wrenching. We also experience the views of Finetta, Enid’s daughter, yet another victim of a broken system that neglects its female children’s mental health and values money above all. This eye-opening novel is moving and psychologically shrewd throughout.