Told by three generations of women in the Tye family, the opening scene describes the aftermath from Will Tye’s near fatal accident – a fall from the roof of a Cambridge college. His young sister Hetta picks up the narrative thread and fills you in on the family background.
And what an interesting family they are. Grandpa Tye, socialist and wartime conscientious objector, fills his retirement translating ancient Greek classics, a passion he passes on to Will. Betsy, Hetta’s grandmother, harbours a guilty secret which she feels was the cause of an almost identical tragedy a generation before involving her son Nat.
Then there’s Betsy’s daughter Belle, both beautiful and wild, who makes up for a lack of childhood affection by having affairs. Her daughter Cele is Will’s cousin and soul mate. She is the quiet one you have to watch, for beneath her placid exterior is a mass of anxiety, a mark of her negligent upbringing.
The passions, secrets and insecurities of the Tye family members, their politics and obsessions, intermingle to create a domino effect on the plot, making for a really satisfying read. The story builds to a tense finale, as secrets are slowly revealed, an ending that is somehow apt as well.
In the background you are aware of the course of events of the twentieth century – the Spanish Civil War, the Blitz of WW2, the development of socialism and the education of women all affect one character or another. And the physical settings are lovely, particularly the Northumberland home of Dowlands which is the Tye stamping ground, but also Cornwall and Ely.
Cousins is a brilliant book, written in the crafted prose and with the psychological insight we have come to expect from Salley Vickers. Her books may be few and far between, but are always worth the wait.
Posted by JAM
Catalogue link: Cousins