When we first meet Harriet Mansfield in London she has spent nearly seven years in care, having pieced her life back together with the help of her counsellor, Mrs McGee. Harriet's father is long dead and her mother works in Paris. Harriet and her mother are not close. Harriet's brother Colin is married but refuses to see her except when a mediator is present. In the course of the novel we learn that both Harriet and Colin were the innocent victims of unpleasant and dysfunctional parents. At one point Colin tells Harriet that their parents should never have been allowed to have children and it is hard to disagree with his assessment, but the world by its very nature is unfair and becoming a parent is something that often arises without foresight or forethought. Being born is nature's cruellest lottery.
Harriet is very lonely and the only close adult relationship she had was snatched away from her by a possessive daughter. Harriet has inherited a lot of money from her father and decides to use this to set up a nursery school for girls. She wants everything to be perfect for them so that they will have the best possible start in life. This is Harriet's way of compensating for the failures of her own upbringing. Things initially go well and the parents of the girls are impressed by Harriet's dedication, but there is a disturbing undercurrent. Harriet's life is the school, and her commitment comes at the expense of her emotional wellbeing. Her staff see this and try to help, but some of the parents are far less sympathetic.
Harriet makes an effort to exude confidence and she is selfless in her work, but in the small hours the deep scars of her childhood come back to haunt her. The ghosts of the past are made flesh when her mother appears in town. The mother fails to turn up for a dinner appointment, leaving Harriet feeling angry and betrayed, but then Harriet learns her mother has been taken to hospital and is seriously ill. Leaving aside her school responsibilities, Harriet spends long hours at her mother's side, feeling a closeness and contentment with her mother that she has not experienced in many a year. Can it be that deep down Harriet's mother truly loves her? Harriet wants that more than anything.
When Harriet returns to the school there are problems with one of the girls and Harriet takes the initiative to solve the problem and to try and get the mother to be more responsible. Then an incident happens that shocks the whole neighbourhood. It is a crisis for Harriet and she needs to show leadership and courage. Can she face up to the test or will the past crush her dreams yet again?
Bad and stupid parents abound in this novel. Many of the girls' parents are more focused on money, status and gossip than the welfare of their children. Nannies take responsibility off the mothers, but being ill-paid and immature the nannies are no substitute in terms of care, nurture and family structure. The pre-school girls sometimes sound cold and fatalistic about the failings of their parents, making you wonder how they will look upon their own future children.
The London in which the story plays out is beset by physical decay and a feeling that no one really cares anymore. Harriet's personality and slight craziness make her oblivious to all this and enable her to be optimistic when others would just give up. But her attitude does not come across as realistic, and her loneliness reinforces how detached she is from those around her.
This novel underlines the enormous power of parenting, a power that can engender much evil as well as good. Parents often give little thought to the long-term consequences of their actions, and like all of us are largely driven by petty emotions and day-to-day demands. Yet the psychological scars of bad families can be deep and abiding, echoing through our adult lives. Harriet, whether despite or because of her out of the ordinary approach to life, eventually finds a way forward. She is a good listener, genuinely likes people and accepts others at face value. Few of those around her have any of these very human qualities.
Susie Boyt's writing is clear with a wry turn, though sometimes I found the story wandering and the language a little cluttered. The occasional bits that need to shock are handled well. The moral, if there is one, seems to be that no matter what life throws at us, in the end we can only give up, run away or pick ourselves up and move on. Harriet has tried running away and it had its attractions - the years in care meant friends and no expectations - but eventually she realises that this is not an option. It simply wasn't living.