The Unknown Bridesmaid by Margaret Forster

Highly readable, if slightly contrived.

Forster knew her craft very well, so the splicing between eras and the depiction of family life is well done. There is a single-character point of view – Julia, who on one page is a child and on another a middle-aged child therapist. This splicing means that at one stage the reader knows little more than the child and at others is privy to the adult’s account – which doesn’t necessarily mean the whole story.

It becomes clear that the problems of the child patients of the adult Julia mirror the problems of the young Julia. She, too, went off the rails a bit – the result, she later concludes, of her parents’ secrets and early deaths. This is convincingly done: as a child she is anxious and prone to malicious impulses, although the defining misdemeanour of her childhood is accidental. She keeps her dreadful secret in the way she has absorbed from her mother, but it infects the rest of her life. Her delinquencies as an adolescent are mean and deliberately unkind. It is just chance – and a full university grant – that get her back on the rails – psychologically damaged, but still a “useful member of society”. She is absorbed by her work – trying to offer troubled children the help she never had – and has little personal life.

Her eventual confession to the cousin she has harmed most is a kind of atonement, but it doesn’t – it can’t – bring about any great change. The book is a clever portrait of a bewildered child who becomes an emotionally detached and not particularly likeable woman . . . who nevertheless does admirable work.

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