Friday 22 November 2019

Softer side of a hard news presenter

Fiction, The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle, Kirsty Wark, Two Roads, £14.99, hdbk, 448 pages

Kirsty Wark
Kirsty Wark

This is the first novel by Kirsty Wark, the BBC Newsnight presenter. Publishers know a big name means big sales – but does the book work? Overall, it's fresh and beguiling but parts of it are trite and gauche.

Wark delicately plaits the intricate tales of three women – Elizabeth Pringle, born in 1911; Anna Morrison, woman of the 1960s; and her daughter Martha. The chapters switch between Elizabeth and Martha. Elizabeth speaks in her own voice, unlike the other characters.

Structurally it works well and the breaks in continuity allow the author to create dramatic anticipation.

In 2006, frail Elizabeth Pringle decides to bequeath "Holmlea", her home on the Scottish Isle of Arran, to a stranger, a young woman with bright clothes and hennaed hair who one day, long ago, had walked past the house, pushing a baby and singing. That woman was Anna, the child Martha. The two of them, with Anna's partner, often visited the island.

In 1972, Anna had impulsively written a letter to Elizabeth seeking to buy Holmlea. Elizabeth never forgot. By the time the property passes to her, Anna has dementia and Martha decides to move in. We get to know Elizabeth's complicated and tragic past, about Anna's lost self and to share Martha's dilemmas and eventual happiness.

Lovers and husbands, friends and relatives come and go, stay or not, live and die. The narrative is packed with incidents but, for the most part, does not rush; it breathes, sighs, ponders. The pace and gentility provide respite from fast, noisy, maddening modernity.

Sometimes, though, Wark loses restraint and control, and you get gushing Mills-and-Boon prose and torrid (and really bad) sex scenes. Dams of passion burst, kisses rain, couples are often "suffused with more and more pleasure, exploring and devouring every inch of each other", and there is much gasping and panting, trembling, devouring and swooning. The descriptions of gardening are, in truth, far more erotic than these bedroom antics.

The book is also encumbered by too much gratuitous detail – "a Hoover with a bulbous nose and a houndstooth fabric dust bag, a similarly dilapidated Bex Bissell carpet sweeper, a selection of long-handled feather dusters up on end, like characters from a Dr Seuss story . . ."

These lapses are easily forgiven because the text as a whole is affecting. Wark has a vivid sense of place. Windswept Arran and Holy Island become starkly beautiful lodestones, which keep its old inhabitants and draw new ones. The landscapes, soil and vegetation have the power to heal broken humans, deliver love and hope after calamities.

George Eliot paid homage to those "who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs". In this novel, some of those hidden stories are told and graves visited with real tenderness.

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

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