Wednesday 29 April 2009
Margaret Forster's short novel Over, is our reading group's book for May. It is in some ways a cautionary tale about what can happen if you don't get over a traumatic loss. In this case the Roscoe family have to come to terms with the death in a sailing accident of their daughter, Miranda. And fail. At least the parents fail with disastrous consequences. For the siblings, Miranda's twin sister Molly and younger brother Finn, seem to manage the healing better. I say seem to, as the novel gives us a very personal account of what happens – the thoughts of Louise, the mother, as recorded in a journal she has started some two years or so after the accident.
This journal is Louise's attempt to understand what has happened and as might be expected is both very intense and very constrained. There is no attempt to present us with a rounded account of how the accident affected all the characters. This is Louise, warts and all, trying to understand what has happened to her.
By the time she starts this journal Louise has left her husband, the family house has been sold and she now lives on her own in a small apartment. The journal covers a period of about a year and in it Louise mixes accounts of her current life as a teacher with reflections and reminiscences about her past. Louise has left her husband, Don, ostensibly because he had become too obsessed with finding out the truth about Miranda's death. Unwilling or unable to accept that it was an accident he spends evermore time and money on a fruitless quest to find out what really happened and who was at fault or to blame. The other members of the family find this strain too much and the family eventually splits up. Molly goes to Africa on a gap year, Finn goes to live with his aunt and Louise sets up on her own.
From the above it appears that Louise has coped better than Don and that she is indeed the put upon one. However we only hear about the events that Louise chooses to put in her journal and we only hear her side of what happens. In particular Don's actions and mindset is never revealed other than through Louise's lens. And as the year progresses it becomes clearer that Louise has not by any means got over the death of her daughter. She manages to fall out with or become more and more detached from all the people who were formerly close to her. Not only Don, but Finn and Molly and her three best friends from earlier days.
All this emerges gradually though Louise herself admits at one point that she “had not got over it any more than his father had. I simply hide my feelings better.” She goes on to add, “Don and I are not in a competition to see who suffers most, who cares most, who is scarred most but, nevertheless, I don't want to be outranked.” This mixture of frankness and egoism is what characterises Louise's confidences to her journal. It is what makes you feel that this is a pretty realistic and truthful account of what can happen.
Though there is no happy ending, there is a sort of catharsis towards the end when the surviving members of the family finally get together again. So that despite all the pain and suffering the novel ends with a message of hope. Louise decides to put away her journal and by implication the past and live more in the present. As she puts it, “I don't want people to say of me that my life was blighted by Miranda's death. I don't want my life to be defined by it. I have recovered a little, I will recover more.”