Review: ‘Family Likeness’ by Caitlin Davies

7 Sep


Rating: ★★☆☆☆

I’ve never really understood the appeal of the genealogy story. With multi-generational texts like ‘Middlesex’ and ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, I find myself wanting to skip to the now far more often than a good English Literature graduate should. I don’t know if it’s a fault of my immersion in the Instagram Generation – where we’re constantly trying to capture and hold the present like an overflowing bag, worried lest we let a single fleeting moment slip away without capturing it forever in the sepia tones of permanence – or whether I’m just not a fan of grandparent sex. Either way, this was not the book for me.

Family Likeness’ is Caitlin Davies’ fifth novel. It follows the story of Muriel Grey, the daughter of a white Englishwoman and an African American soldier stationed in England during the war. Muriel is raised in a children’s home during the 1950’s and much, if not all, of the story centres around her and her daughter’s later efforts to uncover the truth about her lineage.

Like ‘The Herbalist’, this book was confusing for the first few chapters because I couldn’t tell who was speaking: Muriel, or her daughter Rosie. This only becomes easier to discern about halfway through. Basically, Mrs Grey is an orphaned child that only wants to be good. Because of racial prejudice and the slut-shaming of her mother, she is never told that she is. Auntie Peal, the matriarch of the branch home, says, “You’re a bad penny, Muriel!”

She’s not really though. Meanwhile, in the present day, Rosie takes a nanny job at a swanky North London pad.

She’s babysitting the two children of Jonas, a man who has his own secrets. Or does he? Probably. I still don’t know.

As a babysitter, Rosie is more ‘Turn of the Screw’ governess than ‘Mary Poppins’ nanny… and about as unreliable as a narrator. For what is purportedly her diary, she doesn’t divulge much about her day to day life that isn’t directly concerned with the children in her care, or her quest to find her family roots.

And for an all-black cast, there is actually little discussion of race and how it intersects with their lives — unless they’re talking about Muriel’s past. Maybe it’s because the white author felt like it wasn’t her place to discuss these issues, but that just leaves me wondering why she chose the subject in the first place. I did like the parts about Dido Elizabeth Belle, the woman in an oil painting whom Rosie feels a strange affinity with and decides to investigate:

It’s a great painting isn’t it? I was a bit disappointed that this obsession with Britain’s first black aristocrat didn’t amount to much in the end. I’m curious to see Belle when it comes out – a new film exploring the woman’s life. (And not just because it has Draco Malfoy in it.)

‘Family Likeness’ is Caitlin Davies fifth novel, but at times it reads more like a debut. I feel as if it couldn’t quite tell what sort of book it wants to be when it grows up. At times I thought it was going to be a horror story, complete with haunting, reincarnation and madwomen in attics. The children’s mother is absent and presumed dead. Nine-year-old Ella seems slightly twisted — bullying her cousin, killing her brother’s guinea pig, and keeping a rucksack ready in the hallway in order to run away from home at the drop of a hat. Mrs B the housekeeper seems like a shifty character too, I thought that her secretive behaviour would be masking ulterior motives. Spoiler alert: none of this comes to fruition. One can’t help but feel that as a mystery novel, ‘Family Likeness’ doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts.

When done well, diary fiction can be utterly engaging, letting the character’s unique voice and personal story shine through the pages. Just think Bridget Jones, ‘Dracula’, Adrian Mole, etc. With ‘Family Likeness’, I didn’t get a sense of Rosie’s personality at all. Like a novel dealing with abandonment, prejudice and obsession should, it tries to be poignant and effecting but the prose hits a wrong note.

It’s an important story but I just can’t help but feel that perhaps this was the wrong pair of hands to craft it.

‘Family Likeness’ was published by Hutchinson on 4 July at £14.99. I received my review copy through a Goodreads First Reads giveaway. You can buy it on Amazon or support an independent bookshop. (Hint: Appleseed can post internationally.)

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