Margaret Forster specialises in dramatising the everyday and in making heroines of ordinary women. This time she excels herself. Her cast of central characters plus a few equally unenchanting bit players are quite stupefyingly drab. In a format that has become rather a cliche of contemporary women's writing, the novel deals with a cross section of women from very different backgrounds who become unexpectedly connected. In this case a hospital clinic in a small northern town is the focus for their doubts, terrors and inadequacies. Here their paths intersect, touch and diverge as they suffer their various miniscule dilemmas. Rachel, Ida and Edwina have all survived breast cancer. The annual check–up at the clinic is meant to provide reassurance. But even an all–clear can never quite eradicate the shadow of fear implanted by the original illness, so each endures agonies of foreboding which they find impossible to share. Rachel, the crisp lawyer, has no one to turn to since she split up with her boyfriend and deliberately moved far from her family. Middle class housewife Edwina, who vaguely wishes she had done more with her life, finds herself irritated by her husband's determination to rejoice in the good news without accepting the possibility of the bad. Working class Ida has lost the will to communicate with the husband who still mutely loves her despite her retreat into grotesque fatness, intended I think to be a symptom of her self–loathing.

Their inability to connect with others is shared by the doctor attempting to quell their fears — a young, anxious woman who internalises the agonies of her patients but is incapable of conveying her empathy. She is contrasted ironically with Rita, the clinic receptionist — a sharp operator who despite or possibly because of her lack of education is far more effective and calming than the doctors muddling around her.

Rita is also more of a support than the self–appointed Friend of the hospital, Mrs Hibbert, who is the novel's pivotal protagonist, though not very much more interesting than anyone else. Mrs Hibbert is presented as a bossy, Joyce Grenfell–style do–gooder, unable to perceive when her attentions are unwanted and unable to imagine any point of view other than her own. The occasional moments of illumination, where her motives for interfering hover between kindness and self–aggrandisement, are the most poignant in the novel. But on the whole she is an unlikeable and inconsistent creation. Even the intensely kept secret of her marriage, which is meant to shed light on her lapses in sensitivity, isn't convincing enough to spark any identification with her.

The fear of breast cancer is a vitally serious matter to women, and the experiences of survivors relatively unexplored territory. But Forster's treatment of it is unenlightening. This is partly because her central theme, emotional inarticulacy, is clumsily overstated. Absolutely no one in the book can talk to anyone else. At times the survivors seem paralysed by the fear of the recurrence of their disease. But the physical scars are presented as less pertinent than a kind of moral vacuum which they share with the other, equally stunted personalities. These are damaged characters rather than damaged bodies.

The most puzzling aspect of an already troubling narrative is the sudden intrusion of a new vicar, as eagerly awaited and gossiped about as if we had been thrust by accident into the world of Trollope. As there are hardly any congregants in the bleak church, and these include only some of the central characters, this seems a strange device. It turns out that the vicar is yet another symbol. He is as bad at being a vicar as the doctor is at being a doctor or the Friend a friend. He has suffered a nervous breakdown probably connected to his own inability to relate to others. Like the women characters he has found himself in the wrong job and in the wrong life.

This is a poorly constructed and unsatisfying read. Characters float in and out in vague distress but nothing actually happens. And if it did, I can't imagine anyone caring very much.

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