It’s an absolute delight today to be joining the blog tour for The Darlings, the second novel from Angela Jackson: the ebook was published by Lightning Books on 22nd May (free via Kindle Unlimited), the paperback on 21st June, available via Amazon in the UK and US, also via Waterstones, Hive, or by ordering through your favourite local bookshop. My thanks to Emma at #damppebblesblogtours for the tour invitation and all her support, and to her, the publisher and the author for providing my advance reading e-copy.
When you read as many books as I do, it might be forgivable if I say that I don’t have a clear recollection of every book I read back in 2014 – but I do remember every moment of the wonderful The Emergence of Judy Taylor, Angela’s first novel. Quite apart from the originality of the story, and its swirling themes of difficult choices and facing death and a woman’s duty, what set this book apart for me was the sheer quality of the writing: every single word counted, and you could tell that the book was an absolute labour of love. So many people felt the same, as it won the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s First Book Award and was Waterstones’ Scottish Book of the Year: you can read my review again here, together with an interview with the author.
So you can imagine my excitement when Emma told me that another novel was on its way, at long last – despite my heaving reading list, this was one I was determined not to miss…
The daring new novel from the author of The Emergence of Judy Taylor…
When Mark Darling is fifteen years old, he is the golden boy, captain of the school football team, admired by all who know him. Until he kills his best friend in a freak accident.
He spends the next decade drifting between the therapy couch and dead-end pursuits. Then along comes Sadie. A mender by nature, she tries her best to fix him, and has enough energy to carry them both through the next few years.
One evening, Mark bumps into an old schoolfriend, Ruby. She saw the accident first hand. He is pulled towards her by a force stronger than logic: the universal need to reconcile one’s childhood wounds. This is his chance to, once again, feel the enveloping warmth of unconditional love. But can he leave behind the woman who rescued him from the pit of despair, the wife he loves? His unborn child?
This is a story about how childhood experience can profoundly impact how we behave as adults. It’s a story about betrayal, infidelity and how we often blinker ourselves to see a version of the truth that is more palatable to us.
It’s a particularly brave move to write a book that focuses on adultery and its consequences – even braver to tell the story from the point of view of the adulterer – but I really have to say that this was a book I entirely loved.
Mark feels his developing affair with Ruby is justified by the ongoing impact of a devastating incident when he was fifteen – a freak accident when he was responsible for the death of a friend, an event that’s haunted him and blighted his life ever since. His wife Sadie is heavily pregnant with an eagerly anticipated child, the product of an extended IVF journey that’s drained their finances and put some strain on their outwardly solid relationship – but it’s amply clear that they do still love each other. But Ruby is able to offer one important thing that Sadie can’t: she was there on the day of the accident, knew the young and untroubled Mark that he used to be, and he believes she can understand him and help heal his wounds.
One of the big surprises about this book is that the author really does succeed in making Mark a sympathetic character – well, perhaps not entirely, but he’s certainly likeable, however unconvinced you might be by his reasons (or maybe that should be “excuses”) for his behaviour. By day, he half-heartedly writes marketing material for a sofa company, doing the bare minimum and wrestling with office politics – by night he’s a stand-up comedian, hoping for a big break, but content to simply make his audience laugh in the right places.
The childhood accident had far-reaching consequences – Sadie rescued him from a particularly dark place, and still treats him like a rather incapable child at times, managing his life, giving him jobs to do (then doing them herself). He’s essentially weak, a bit damaged, and extraordinarily naive in his belief that he can keep both parts of his life – his marriage and his affair – entirely separate.
Ruby’s a fascinating character too – she knows he’s married from the outset, and enters the relationship fairly lightly, but things certainly don’t stay that way. There’s something uncomfortably obsessive about the way her passion for him develops – her art is particularly disturbing – as he finds himself increasingly torn between his marriage and her growing belief that he will ultimately be hers. And as Mark’s two lives begin to collide, it’s rather like watching the approach of a car accident – you can see what’s going to happen, there’s nothing you can do to prevent it, but there’s no way you can look away.
With all that guilt and the growing tension – it’s no great surprise when Mark starts to feel the strain and experience panic attacks – you might be rather expecting a heavy read, but it most certainly isn’t. There’s an enormous amount of lightness and humour, sometimes gentle, sometimes really laugh-out-loud – it never seeks to excuse or trivialise the seriousness of his actions, and there are certainly times when you wonder if you’re laughing with the characters or at them.
The chapters are often quite short – something I always rather like, and it gives real pace to the story telling. There’s a really well-developed wider cast of characters too – Sadie’s straight-talking younger sister Ava, their wonderful parents with their glut of garden produce and particularly memorable interventions, Mark’s friends, his nemesis Don in the workplace, plus Ruby’s group of female friends who act as something of a Greek chorus – all very real and believable, all playing their parts in adding depth and other dimensions to the story.
It’s a book with a multiplicity of themes, not least the way that events of the past can impact on behaviour in the present – but it’s also immensely engaging, poignant and emotionally affecting, thoroughly entertaining and entirely absorbing from beginning to end. And I haven’t even mentioned the sheer perfection of the writing – it’s a story crafted with immense care and attention to detail, an absolute joy to read. I really can’t recommend it highly enough – I thought it was quite wonderful. Welcome back, Angela – without question, this will be one of my books of the year.
About the author
Angela Jackson is a former psychology lecturer and teacher trainer. Her debut novel The Emergence of Judy Taylor won the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s First Book Award and was Waterstones’ Scottish Book of the Year.
The Darlings is her second novel.
Originally from the north of England, she now lives with her family in Edinburgh.