Spilt Milk, by Amanda Hodgkinson, Fig Tree, RRP£8.99, 304 pages
In the rural Suffolk of 1913, three sisters live in poverty. The two younger women, Nellie and Vivian Marsh, rely on the much older Rose to earn money working at a local farm. When their riverside cottage floods, a giant pike is carried inside: “It came through the broken slats, fat and fast as tarnished coins tumbling from a ripped purse.” With this striking vignette – “an omen. A sign of luck”, as Nellie believes – their lives change forever, setting in motion an ebullient 20th-century family saga that spans the rest of Nellie’s life.
Spilt Milk is Amanda Hodgkinson’s second novel; the first was the well-received 22 Britannia Road (2011), a tale of exile and homecoming that begins as the second world war ends. The family is her heartland: while the strong figures of Nellie, Vivian and Nellie’s daughter Birdie drive the narrative, it is in the large and well-delineated supporting cast that the writer best displays her talent.
Most memorable are the brothers George and Henry Farr, London publicans who both love Nellie, and with whom she lives, happily but unconventionally, finding that a country girl can come to love the curiously liberating confines of the city. Rising early in the mornings: “She liked the smog and the pale yellow bowl of light that hung over the buildings. It made her feel she was part of something vast and constantly changing.”
Nellie has a fond but sexless marriage with the mentally and physically damaged war veteran Henry and a satisfying physical relationship with the outgoing, uncomplicated George. All three accept the arrangement. “We can find a way to make this work, the three of us,” George tells Nellie. And they do – but at great emotional cost to all concerned.
Hodgkinson’s story coils and twists around family secrets and lies. There are babies born outside marriage in every generation – dead babies, children given up for adoption, a girl who does not know her father – and lies that threaten to entrap and expose the women, even decades later. The novelist gives us her take on the real, gut-wrenching stories of the lost children in so many families; untold histories that ate away at our parents, grandparents and the generations before them.
Spilt Milk is a refracted version of real life, that impossible mess we inherit and muddle through, yet transmuted here into something shining and meaningful, told in beautiful prose. In the 1960s, when Birdie’s previously happy marriage is threatened by the unravelling of her past, she goes to stay with her mother, now 72, widowed and living on the coast. Nellie swims out to sea, planning to drop a bottle containing a good-luck charm for Birdie. She is almost washed away. “She came into view and then disappeared silently, like a bottle bobbing in the waves.” The tiny, delicate daughter (hence “Birdie”) wades in and rescues her once sturdy, now frail mother.
This is a rare physical peril – most of the drama is emotional, and those family rifts are mostly patched up by the end of the book. Spilt Milk will be enjoyed by those who like family sagas but it’s much more than that: Hodgkinson’s thoughtful writing demands careful reading. “They were a mend-and-make-do kind of family and you had to love them for it. For their patchwork quilt of births, deaths and marriages, the mistakes and foolish regrets, and all the pretty little silken scraps of good things too.”
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