Picking at the knot of family ties

30th January 2004 at 00:00
Brother amp; Sister. By Joanna Trollope. Bloomsbury. pound;16.99.

Deafening. By Frances Itani. Sceptre. pound;14.99.

How to Breathe Underwater. By Julie Orringer. Penguin. pound;10.99

People who haven't read Joanna Trollope's intelligent dissections of modern dilemmas affecting family life, love and friendship often think they know exactly what her novels are like. The image is of middle-Englanders with a whiff of bohemianism, and a line-up of female characters who could all belong to the same book group, in which they are currently reading Joanna Trollope.

This theory collapses as soon as you realise you would never want to discuss a Joanna Trollope in a book group; this one in particular is to be read and savoured alone with a box of tissues to hand when you feel you should be doing something else.

Brother amp; Sister provides insights into the ripple effect of the decision by two adults who were adopted and brought up as siblings to trace their respective birth mothers and the considerable emotional toll on all concerned. It studies Nathalie's and David's response to their adoptive status as children and adults and their partners' guilt-ridden resentment at the bond between them, which is deeper than that of many biological siblings because of their shared preoccupation with unanswered questions.

We learn that despite Nathalie's apparent relish in living with a genetic blank slate, she has as great a need for resolution as David, who was driven to self-harm in his teens (we also learn, almost imperceptibly and at a late stage, that David lost his first set of adoptive parents in early childhood before joining Nathalie's family).

It concludes that finding the missing piece of the jigsaw is worth the pain involved for these two people and their birth mothers, but that the stress on the families on both sides cannot be underestimated. All parties invite so much empathy that every stage in the process makes agonising reading.

Trollope's treatment of the potential consequences of giving a baby up for adoption (albeit at a time when the birth mother's emotional welfare may have been taken less into account than today) might be helpful to anyone who has contact with a pregnant teenager. When David and Nathalie begin their search, their mothers, Cora and Carole, (we don't learn which child belongs to which mother for a tantalisingly long time) have slipped into lives regulated by others. Cora is a pottery teacher living in her bossy sister's boxroom, with hints of a breakdown in her past; Carole is stiflingly cherished by her husband and business partner, with a gap in her life since his retirement, and a poor relationship with her eldest son.

David also has a wife who has already written the script for his life: Marnie is a former nursery teacher who transfers her impeccable classroom management methods to the home (you know this must be a work of fiction, because in real life Marnie would be sharing a platform with Bill Rogers).

David's passion for chess satisfies his need for escape until contact with his mother shatters his well-ordered home life; the pressure on his children is exceptionally well drawn, especially the picture of daughter Ellen becoming her powerhouse mother's caretaker. Nathalie's partner, Steve, is also ultra-controlled - a designer who never leaves a pencil out of place - but deals with his suppressed fury at his exclusion from Nathalie's emotional life in potentially traumatic style. All the key characters are poised on a tightrope when the novel opens; Trollope lets them topple, but replaces the safety net just in time.

Save some tissues for Frances Itani's Deafening, an absorbing novel about the power of language and how it is learnt. Noise is all around Grania, whose Irish-Canadian family runs a hotel in a boom-or-bust factory town in Ontario in the early 1900s. But scarlet fever leaves her deaf at five. She assembles her world from illustrated books and her beloved grandmother's coaching before two years of more-or-less benign neglect in elementary school. She learns to"talk" to her sister after dark by an ingenious leg-rope system, but the lifeline is removed when she is sent at nine to "The Ontario Institution for the Deaf and Dumb" (prayers, domestic science, sewing, lip-reading and articulation; no going home - only 20 miles away - for Christmas), where children are classified as "bright, dull, stupid or idiotic".

Being a bright girl, Grania cries for two weeks. She survives and learns, but just as she becomes equipped for young adulthood, the First World War begins.

Playground bullying is a factor when Grania's family (based on the author's own ancestors) decide to send her away to school.

Julie Orringer's first story collection includes the excellent "Note to Sixth-Grade Self", probably set in the 1980s but indicating that little ever changes among pre-pubescent group dynamics when a victim is spotted. A sharp analysis of what happens when the least popular girl in dancing class dares to learn all the best steps, this could make you very depressed if it wasn't so well done.

Geraldine Brennan

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