Fiction - hardcover; Bloomsbury; 375 pages; 1997.
English novelist Jennifer Lash never lived to see her last novel, Blood Ties, published. She died from cancer in 1993.
Also known as Jini Fiennes, she was the mother of actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes. And if there has ever been a more shallow reason for reading a novel, then I am yet to find it.
On all kinds of levels Blood Ties is a remarkable piece of work. At its most basic level you could describe it as a a classic nature versus nurture story — are children born evil, or does their upbringing play a part? But it is also literary fiction of the highest order — peopled by intriguing, complicated characters; written in achingly beautiful prose; and filled with scenes that swing between sardonic wit, unbelievable cruelty and high drama.
The story is set largely in Co Tipperary, Ireland, and south-east England, including west London. It traces one Anglo-Irish family — headed by stern matriarch Violet Farr — over the course of three generations.
Violet is a bit of a cool fish. She has a saying that "bad blood will out". But despite her fine standing in the community, her big house, her wealth and her good looks, she lacks any kind of maternal feeling or ability to bond with other people. And when she marries Cecil — a closet homosexual who has repressed his sexuality altogether — it takes 10 years for Violet to fall pregnant.
Their son, Lumsden — named after Violet's father — is kept very much at a distance and at the first opportunity he is shipped off to boarding school in England, where he is bullied for being Irish and disliked by the staff. When he returns home for holidays it is clear that his mother loves her faithful dog, Birkin, more than him. A decision is made. If he can't get love or attention for following rules and being good, he will behave badly.
This is the lynch-pin upon which the rest of the novel hangs, for Lumsden turns into a thoroughly wayward teenager beyond anyone's control. Indeed, it is only when he returns home to Ireland — getting drunk in the local pub, stalking local girls — that his behaviour threatens Violet's standing in the community. Instead of addressing the issue properly, it is left to drag on. And then Lumsden does something he shouldn't — and the local priest sees that he is not only run out of town, but shipped back to England forever.
There's a level of cruelty in operation here that almost defies belief. Violet, so inward-looking, cold-hearted and controlling, thinks nothing of having her only son booted out of the country. Meek, mild, emasculated Cecil drives him to the ferry — and doesn't even bother to stop and wave goodbye.
Lumsden, for all his failings — and there are many — typifies what happens when love is absent from the home. The sad thing is that this heartless upbringing is repeated in the next generation but this time it is taken to the next degree — neglect and abuse.
There's no doubt that this book has a strong moral message, nicely tied up in an ending that is both uplifting and redemptive. But its clever, circular plot — the novel starts with Violet's first grandchild arriving on her doorstep before looping back to her courtship with Cecil — means this is not a straightforward run-of-the-mill read. I found it totally engrossing and hope that this review might help bring Jennifer Lash's work to a wider audience.