Bad Relations

Written by Cressida Connolly
Review by Helen Johnson

In 1855 William Gale is cradling the head of his dead brother, far from home in the Crimean War.  At home, his wife Alice longs for the return of her husband, and a family life. William comes home a hero. He visits London, where the Queen awards him her newly launched medal, the Victoria Cross. He plants trees and fathers a son. But Alice begins to realise, things are different. The war has changed William.

So begins a family saga, reminiscent of Dickens as the narrator drops in and out of multiple heads, examining their thoughts. Again reminiscent of Dickens, the plot expands through the wider family, full of misunderstandings, greed and fallings-out: the clue is in the title. Unlike Dickens, Connolly skillfully compresses the story into 282 highly readable pages. With a plot stretching over 160 years and across continents, much must be abridged. But the prose is never dull.  Swift summaries of lives are interspersed with jewel-like flashes of action, dialogue and period detail.

The story pivots around a group of William’s teenaged descendants, gathered for a golden summer in the 1970s.  Having lived through the 1970s myself, I was amused at the fashions and references selected to create the period setting.  And yes, they are authentic.  The older settings feel authentic too.  Victorian characters use language appropriate to the period.

The story does what family history researchers struggle so hard to achieve: it opens up the inner lives of the ancestors.  In every generation of this story, Connolly takes us inside the heads of the characters, showing how they feel about their themselves and their families. Eventually, these entangled lives come together for a satisfying conclusion. Recommended for lovers of sagas and students of human nature.