Joe is a Jew, who grew up in a close and loving working class Jewish family, did well at school and Oxford, and became a doctor; but his personal life is a mess. He basically doesn’t fancy Jewish girls and yearns for a cool blonde shikse with milky skin and clear eyes; after a false start with the plain and shrewish Ursula, he finally gets his Venus on the half-shell in Anna, a lissom blonde beauty, who returns his passion and gives herself to him utterly, partly to escape her horrible father, and partly to spite him. But Anna’s clear-eyed innocent appearance hides frightful secrets, and the novel uncovers these masterfully, never letting the suspense drop, and delivering every revelation with style and humour. Anna never wants to speak about her past, which leaves Joe vulnerable to the lies of interested parties.
The tale of their misunderstandings, betrayals, parting, loss, eventual happy marriage and resolution of the misunderstandings is gripping, dramatic, believable. I had to stay up till 3.30 this morning to finish it. Much of the book is told as a first person narrative by Joe, and this is a great success – his love for Anna and for his children, his ambivalent feelings about his family and background, his hatred for his father-in-law, his intensely physical nature, sometimes pulling counter to his sensitivity and intellect, are all captured with salty, grounded detail. If anything – this is a tiny quibble - his visceral passions and griefs loom so large that they slightly overshadow the more anodyne character of Anna, whose calm, gentle, loving nature seems an unlikely outcome for someone with such tragedies and cruelties in their history. But don’t let that put you off. This is a riveting story beautifully told, and deserves whopping success. I am very pleased to have found Mary Cavanagh, and I hope she writes lots more novels.