A Perfect Explanation by Eleanor Anstruther. A book review by Charisa Gunasekera
By Ian G Evans, on 10 May 2019
A Perfect Explanation by debut author Eleanor Anstruther is an evocative work of historical fiction set in the cultural tumult of interwar England. Inspired by the author’s own grandmother’s life, the novel is based on true story of Enid Campbell, the beautiful and aloof granddaughter of the 8th Duke of Earl, through her loveless marriage and disastrous attempts to be a mother under the strain of post-natal depression in London’s 1920s upper-class society. In this fictionalised retelling of the traumatic events of her life (ultimately crowned by her decision to sell her younger son—the author’s father—for £500), Anstruther deftly alternates between Enid’s ‘perfect explanation’ of her neglectful motherhood from her Christian Scientist’s nursing home in 1964, and the real-time progression of the dysfunction surrounding her and her three children through the 1920s and 1930s.
Enid is an entitled and incompetent mother, yet something about her tragic story is irresistible. Anstruther lays her history bare with skilful prose and astonishing empathy, so that readers are thrust into a compelling narrative. This story is told from the point of view of a woman who was not made to be a mother, yet, after her eldest brother is killed during World War One, is suddenly expected to provide an heir for her aristocratic family regardless. Enid marries her middle-class husband Douglas primarily to spite her mother, who openly favours her younger sister Joan over her. This is a preference Enid cannot forgive Joan for, cruelly teasing her through childhood and then resenting her sister’s bohemian lifestyle in an adulthood spent battling her own unacknowledged depression.
Nevertheless, Enid also dutifully bears a son who is born with hydrocephalus, the signs of which she ignores as she drowns under what the doctor terms ‘Mother’s Blues’, until the boy has a near-fatal accident while under her neglectful watch. With the heir now ‘damaged’, Enid attempts to remedy the situation by turning to the more questionable practices of Christian Science as well as by getting pregnant again to produce a new heir. Instead, she conceives a daughter whom she finds she cannot love in this gendered climate and thus ignores. Finally, she births Ian, the author’s father, the climax of the story upon whom all the family’s hope and fortune rests.
Seeing the world through Enid’s eyes is profoundly uncomfortable, yet fascinating. She is small-minded, selfish, and incapable of taking responsibility for her own actions, let alone the care of her three children. But the consequences of Enid’s petty rivalry with her younger sister whose lesbianism she detests, her contemptuous marriage to a man whose proposal she only accepted as a rebuke, her traumatic and lonely motherhood, and finally her shocking decision to abandon everything to dedicate herself to the radical doctrine of the Christian Scientists are profoundly haunting. Her actions echo through her life history into this compelling contemporary story of familial dysfunction, aristocratic brutality, and gradual vilification of a misunderstood woman’s life.
A Perfect Explanation is a brilliant historical novel that will make readers question exactly what makes a mother fit and who has the right to the ownership of a life. Anstruther’s characters are deeply cerebral and internally developed, reckoning with unspoken traumas and, consequently, believably justifying the most inexplicable and unforgivable of choices. Therefore, its compelling narrative, arresting characters and vivid writing make A Perfect Explanation unquestionably a strong contender for this year’s Desmond Elliot Prize.
A Perfect Explanation is published by Salt