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New York Times Sunday Book Review: "A mesmerizing, unsettling novel."

Date: Sep 19 2014

There may be no bigger mystery to a child than her own family — those adults who pretend not to notice even the most glaring issues, who make peculiar requests and then refuse to explain a thing. For Julia, the central character in Margaret Forster’s psychological puzzle-box of a novel, even basic factual information can be mystifying. Were her actions as a girl harmless or grave? She herself doesn’t know, and the uncertainty colors the rest of her life.


At 48, Julia is a therapist who evaluates children — only girls (at least they’re the only ones we are shown) — referred to her for infractions both minor and severe. Forster, the British author of more than 30 books of fiction, biography, memoir and history, never allows these gripping passages to veer into sensationalism. Julia is steady, empathetic and insightful, with a particular gift for finding the pragmatic solution to troubling family dynamics. But the girls’ stories — not to mention upheavals in the form of a job change, moves and a wedding invitation from an old friend — evoke unwelcome memories, and as the story pivots between Julia’s adulthood and childhood, her life is revealed in sharp, unsettling relief.


As a girl, Julia lives alone with her mother, Lydia. When Julia is invited to be a bridesmaid at her cousin Iris’s wedding, the event touches off a lifetime of consequences. Though Lydia and her older sister often feud — let’s just say they’re cut from the same chain mail — the two nevertheless become closer after the wedding. As a result, Julia is on the scene as her cousin recovers from a sudden loss and later becomes a mother. Then one day young Julia makes an impulsive decision to take her cousin’s infant for a walk in his pram. That impulse leads to a tragedy.


Then again, maybe it doesn’t.


Relationships between women drive this novel, creating its sensitive, shifting terrain. One isn’t always certain what, exactly, there is to fear in the middle-class environs in which Julia grows up, but no matter how mundane the event, the atmosphere is electric with significance. Julia’s whole life is spent divining these hidden meanings, whether as a child piecing together bits of adult conversation or as an adult trying to determine if a girl is dangerous or simply misunderstood.


By the time she is a teenager, Julia evinces a growing appetite for dangerous excitement and covert acts of cruelty directed at her extended family. The adult Julia’s stresses begin to manifest as intensifying isolation from relationships, feelings of superiority over her friends, colleagues and even clients. At her worst, Julia seems to compromise even her work. Is this the same trustworthy person of those early pages? Was she ever? The parallel structure of Forster’s narrative allows her to present Julia at different times in her life, slowly twisting into what feels like someone else. But she has also shown, quite expertly, that this is not someone else at all.


Forster does a stunning job of shaping each layer of Julia’s psychological perspective into a dark, prismatic whole, but if there’s one disappointment in this book, it’s the abrupt ending. The novel has gathered such tension, and our experience of Julia is so intimate, that the closing passages seem poised to open one final door. But the conclusion fails to offer new insight. Then again, perhaps that’s Forster’s point, given how well she has explored her characters’ penchants for rationalization and self-deception. But a final reiteration of previous ideas isn’t enough to satisfy.


That doesn’t prevent “The Unknown Bridesmaid” from being a mesmerizing, unsettling novel. What is the truth of Julia’s childhood within her tangled family, and what are its effects on her as an adult? Is it a success if a child becomes a respected professional instead of an outright criminal? The view from inside Julia’s head suggests otherwise.