LUCY BECKETT is best known for her historical novels, but then one can understand that writing about contemporary Britain must have been a temptation that she could not resist. Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic have combined to put this country through the greatest challenges to its values, its unity, and its functioning since the Second World War. The threats that both crises have created are reflected in the pages of In the Grieving of Her Days.
Clare Wilson is a widow in her seventies, enjoying a prosperous but rather lonely life in her South Kensington flat, missing her husband and her dead soldier son, irritated by her daughter and her Tory MP son-in-law, but with her life enriched by her faith, her elderly gay friend, David, and her rapport with a young Libyan archaeologist whom she met while she escorted a cruise-ship tour around the great Roman sites of his country.
Clare’s religious devotion, her Englishness, and her neat and tidy ways remind this reader of characters out of Barbara Pym, although Pym would probably have disapproved of Clare being “a Roman”, while the affluent SW7 setting and the greater cultural sophistication of the characters suggest Anita Brookner.
But instead of the lightness of touch of those two novelists, this fiction has a more ponderous tone. The long and very worthy discussions of Brexit and Middle East politics suggest Beckett read too many textbooks and Guardian leaders before beginning this tale. This is a pity, because, if the reader gets past these, this is a novel worth reading.
Beckett is at her best on the complexities of human emotion: loneliness creeping up on life; mothers not always getting on with their children; the affinities between grandparents and grandchildren; unexpected friendships in old age; and, above all, grief. Beckett shows ways in which love survives, and how, for someone like Clare Wilson, its bedrock is God.
Catherine Pepinster is a former editor of The Tablet. Her latest book is Martyrdom (SPCK, 2020).
In the Grieving of Her Days
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