A Lifetime Burning by Linda Gillard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Where I got the book: this is one of those rare occasions where I requested a copy from the author because I became intrigued about her writing.
I’ve been mulling over whether to include spoilers or not, but I think I’ll have to if I’m going to discuss the story properly. The blurb makes the novel sound like it’s a family story and so it is, told in a non-linear style over a sixty-year period. It’s the story of Flora Dunbar, her twin brother Rory, and their family through three generations, interestingly framed in a beyond-the-grave narration by Flora’s—ghost? Tortured soul? There’s a whole book club discussion in just that one point.
As children, Flora and Rory are emotionally close, to the point that separation causes them anguish. As they grow up Rory’s extraordinary talent as a pianist takes him to places where Flora can’t go. She marries Hugh, a widowed vicar (this is the early 1960s so Flora’s view of her career options is excusably limited) while Rory marries Grace, a fellow musician.
Neither marriage is particularly happy. Flora and Rory’s adult relationship is twisted and tormented by a physical attraction toward each other that is made apparent to the reader early on. Flora copes by drinking; Rory has his music; but you just KNOW where I’m going with this, don’t you. Yep.
And this is where I have to say that I admire the way Linda Gillard deals with the subject of incest. All good novels have a “what-if?” at their core, and A Lifetime Burning asks: what if love—in all its manifestations, emotional and physical—is forbidden by morality, religion and law but still undeniably there? What does it do to the people involved? She flanks the story of Rory and Flora with two other instances of incest (the Dunbars are quite the close family) which have different outcomes, both equally bleak. And she handles the topic with grace: without glamorizing it, without condemning or condoning, with an understanding of the depth of love involved and the corresponding depth of pain.
I described this novel to a friend and she remarked that she wouldn’t even read such a book because the subject-matter would make her feel as if she needed a shower. I understood her squeamishness: if A Lifetime Burning had glamorized the situation or tried to make it sexy or anything like that, I would have felt the same. But Gillard focuses on the consequences of Flora and Rory’s obsessive relationship and its destructive nature; there’s nothing glamorized about it. Sex is far from being the focus of the novel, although several of the characters crave a sexual relationship for the intimacy and warmth it brings. The one—memorable—sex scene that I recall is beautifully written to bring out Flora’s role as the victim of her desires and Rory’s as her tortured manipulator.
The writing is fantastic; Gillard is particularly good at dialogue and balances it beautifully with narrative scenes. Having recently read Life After Life, also a literary novel concerning a family told in a non-linear style, I couldn’t help noticing that I cared a whole lot more about the characters in A Lifetime Burning—the emotion that I felt the much-touted litfic “best novel of the century” lacked was right here, in a novel that’s every bit as good as Kate Atkinson’s. I particularly liked Hugh, the still center of the novel who is, in the long run, able to deal with his own desires and emotions in a non-destructive way.
I do relish writers who tackle the hard stuff of life without making a big song and dance about it. I enjoyed this read very much and would recommend it to anyone who likes literary fiction and who appreciates that writers get to think the unthinkable so that we can experience the repercussions within the space of our own heads, with no harm to anyone.
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