Two shocking bereavements, separated by more than a century, will link unsuspecting sides of a family in Cressida Connolly’s haunting and beautiful novel. Other writers might have stretched this material to saga length. Bad Relations confines its scope to fewer than 300 pages and reverberates the more for its deft compression.
It begins amid the smoke and chaos of a battlefield in the Crimea, where Captain William Gale cuts a lock of hair from the head of his dead younger brother, Algie – a memento for their parents back home in Gloucestershire. Meanwhile, William’s wife, Alice, prays for his safe return and writes him letters deploring the prosecution of the war, a radical streak destined to come between them. For in spite of her loving ways and the young son she has borne him, William grows distant from Alice on his return to England; unreasonable at first, then unreachable, he is not the gentle husband who went off to war years before. “Small gusts of fury blew through him yet not away from him.” Those gusts presage a thunderstorm that will rend and wreck.
The scene shifts to 1977 and a farm near Truro, Cornwall, where hormonal tumult is in play. A mild-mannered 17-year-old, Stephen, has arrived from Melbourne to stay with distant cousins. He immediately fancies Cass, but ends up in bed with her sister, Georgie, and amid a hazy atmosphere of dope, dancing and parental disapproval, a long hot summer suddenly boils over. An acid trip wreaks havoc and sends one unfortunate youth into a deadly spiral of psychosis. The final part of the novel springs forward to 2016, when a middle-aged Australian, Hazel, visits family in England she has never met, their remote connection a great-great-grandfather, William Gale.
What Connolly handles so expertly is the way scattered fragments of the past overlay the present. The ownership of a Victoria Cross awarded to William, one of the first in the British army, shimmers in and out of the reader’s sightline, destined to put two sides of the family at odds a century later. The suspense becomes almost sickening. During a clear-out, the discovery of a locket with hair coiled inside it prompts Cass and Georgie to speculate on whose it was – “some ancestor”, they suppose, whom we know to be Algernon Gale, his corpse still warm on the book’s first page. Life and death are intimately entwined. The hands of a dead man are “waxen, like a stale candle”, while a wounded man’s hand is “still as a bunch of white radishes”. Receiving his medal from Queen Victoria, William notices the royal hands are “as pale as unripe fruit”. Oh, for the touch of these vanished hands…
But an even subtler reckoning of loss is expressed in different feelings about a tragedy over time. Hazel has endured raw grief over the long-ago death of her brother: “It sometimes seemed as if she’d spent her whole life missing him, or trying not to”. Yet the photographs of him as a schoolboy she once found too poignant to look at she now rediscovers in a sad spirit of fondness. The volatile nature of families is conjured here with a superbly noticing eye. The love and tension crackling between the sisters are set against the legacy of their awful mother, Celia, whose cold snobbishness has had a long, lowering effect. Connolly conducts us through this emotional minefield with great delicacy, balancing compassion with beadiness, much as she did in her previous (wonderful) novel After the Party (2018), also about sisterly estrangement after an ill-starred flirtation with Mosleyite fascists.
In recent British fiction I can think only of Tessa Hadley who rivals Connolly in exacting such intricate, compelling drama from close-knit families. But it’s also her feel for discrete historical periods – the corseted morality of the 1860s, the 1970s of cheesecloth, discos and strawberry Mivvis – that put us so precisely inside her characters’ Englishness. Bad Relations evinces not just an extraordinary level of skill but a kind of humility on the author’s part not to outstay her welcome. I don’t often wish a book were longer, but this one I did.
Anthony Quinn’s new novel, Molly & the Captain, is published by Little, Brown in October