Book review: Spilt Milk by Amanda Hodgkinson
The relationships between mothers, daughters and sisters are complex, shifting and notoriously volatile.
Amanda Hodgkinson, whose debut novel 22 Britannia Road caused a stir last year, takes up this potent theme in a historical odyssey covering 50 years and three generations of an ordinary family harbouring extraordinary secrets.
Spilt Milk is a moving and lyrical story, in tune with nature, human nature, the power of love and the ties that bind together lives fractured by discord, despair and deceit.
At its heart are two sisters, affectionate partners in spinsterhood, but torn apart by the unexpected arrival of an itinerant farm worker at their tiny, isolated cottage on the banks of the Little River in Suffolk in 1913.
Handsome, charming, sweet-talking Joe will set their pulses racing and change the course of their sheltered lives forever.
Since the death of their parents, unmarried sisters Nellie and Vivian Marsh live a ‘mend-and-make-do’ existence with their older sister Rose on the outskirts of a small village.
Both in their early twenties, Vivian and Nellie are tentatively getting ready for new experiences but 37-year-old Rose has decided that they must dedicate themselves to ‘sibling love,’ live in their cottage hidden from the world and abide by their late mother’s mantra that ‘talk and lies cannot touch us if we’re deaf to the sound of them.’
Nellie, superstitious, robust and practical, adores the adventurous romance in the soul of kind, loving and beautiful Vivian while Rose, worn out by work and illness, is loyal and private and a mystery to her sisters.
The young 20th century is all around them but they are not part of it… until Rose’s death casts them adrift, the river suddenly floods and to the rescue comes farm labourer Joe Ferier whose presence blows apart their cloistered innocence.
Both Nellie and Vivian fall for Joe, a man at one with the river and who emanates a watery scent of weeds, mud and washed stones. The consequences are devastating for the sisters who leave their home, carrying with them a terrible secret that will be a lifetime’s burden.
In 1939, a generation later, teenager Birdie Farr is working as a barmaid in the family pub in London when she finds she is pregnant and turns to her mother Nellie for help. Aunt Vivian steps in to arrange an adoption for Birdie’s newborn daughter but as the years pass Birdie discovers she cannot escape Nellie and Vivian’s shadowy past.
And her own obsession with finding her lost daughter will have deep consequences for all of them...
Hodgkinson’s atmospheric and affecting novel excels in its finely detailed sense of time and place, its gently unfolding narrative and the insight and power of its emotive themes.
Is history destined to repeat itself, she asks, is nature stronger than nurture and can a new generation break the bonds of history, family tradition and genetic programming?
Strong and yet achingly vulnerable, pulled back constantly to the river that shaped their destinies, Nellie and Vivian are beautifully drawn characters, their lives constantly overshadowed by events in the past.
Spilt Milk is also compelling and enjoyable as it travels backs through time, evoking the sights, sounds and smells of an East Anglian rural idyll or the muck, sprawl and clamour of the back streets of London.
Wise, perceptive, warm and heartbreaking, this is a story that lingers long in the mind…
(Penguin, paperback, £8.99)