You take your little daughter to hospital. You have been giving her Calpol and telling yourself it isn’t serious, that she’ll soon be fine. But she’s not getting better. And quite suddenly it is very serious indeed. The child is rushed through the usual preliminaries. She undergoes tests, is whisked off to a ward — and you find yourself asking the kind, weary consultant just to tell you that she won’t die. And you don’t get a straight answer.
Even if you haven’t lived through this terrifying scenario, your heart will surely falter as you read about this happening to Julian, the appealing young hero of Polly Samson’s second novel. And for a long time, you don’t discover the answer to his desperate question. What you do learn is that every trace of Mira has been removed from his house. There are no photographs or childish drawings, no small gumboots, dolls or tricycles. All he can find of his daughter is a red leather Start-rite shoe, scuffed at the toe and bearing the soft imprint of Mira’s tiny foot. It is tucked into the folds of the “low-slung smile” of a hammock, swinging between two apple trees. He keeps it in his desk, and tries to resist taking it out too often.
Much of the book is seen through the prism of Julian’s memory, as he gradually recovers from meningitis in his now desolate house, and revisits the events that have brought him so low. He remembers meeting Julia, Mira’s mother, as she flew a hawk in a big wind. Eight years older than him, she was the embodiment of all his romantic ideals. When she ran away from her brutal husband, Julian left university to live with her in London. He wrote children’s stories while she started a plant nursery with her friend Freda. Mira was born, and their ensuing happiness seemed unassailable until Firdaws, his idyllic childhood home, came on to the market and he seized the chance to buy it back. Julia, unwilling to give up her job, went to lodge with the widowed father of Karl, a trusted friend. To Karl, “a short, untidy [man] with comedy eyebrows”, Julian owes his life.
To reveal any more of the intricate plot would risk spoiling the many volte-faces of this unsentimental, unflinching yet never depressing novel. The clues are all there, if you can spot them, but the surprises continue until the very last page. Besides this deft mastery of structure, Samson has the rare ability to create characters with whom the reader deeply sympathises, however wrong they are. With a couple of malicious exceptions, their mistakes spring from generous intentions, although the collateral damage can be devastating. Towards the end of the book, Freda puts her finger on this theme, which underlies so much of Samson’s writing: “It is strange,” she muses, “to think of the lives we could’ve led.”
Perfect Lives is the ironic title of Samson’s last book, a subtly interconnected collection of short stories. The Kindness is similarly cunningly constructed, and similarly shot through with teasing motifs. Rodents, sinister invertebrates or unattractive insects lurk in every stream or glade. Wasps, to which Julian is allergic, punctuate dramatic moments and, when someone wipes a table, “a couple of confused houseflies tiptoe over the suddenly clean surface”. Often she uses culinary or domestic imagery: one night Julian submits to “the custardy embrace” of a bottle of Advocaat, and wakes to regret it; a bossy woman leans from her car showing “a bare arm mottled mortadella by the sun”; the newborn Mira, her cheeks “soft as new mushrooms”, smells of “warm bread and hot blood”.
This is elegant, witty writing, informed throughout by generosity and wise perceptiveness. Dealing with many kinds of love, and with misunderstanding, betrayal, grief and forgiveness, the novel dares to posit, ultimately, the possibility of redemption. It is a book to cherish, to recommend, to return to — and not to lend to anyone.
The Kindness, by Polly Samson, Bloomsbury, RPR£14.99, 304 pages
‘The Kindness’ will be published in the US in July
Photograph: Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos