Strangers : A Family Romance

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British novelist Tennant tells stories about her wealthy and eccentric family. Among them are her great-aunt Margot Asquith, married to the Prime Minister, her reclusive uncle Stephan, and her half-brother Colin who built a palace in the Caribbean. She includes no index or bibliography, but does provide a family tree. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR ( The best memoirs are lit by far more than the actual: ambivalence, too, comes into painful play. And as she reveals in Strangers, Emma Tennant has long seen herself as a member of her nouvelle aristocratic tribe and yet "no such thing." Her astonishing family reverie opens on August 12, 1912--25 years before she was born--but her account of a long-ago picnic, in Scottish "fields where imagined rabbits ran," brings her forebears to instant if pinioned life. An uncle surveys the estates he will eventually inherit, thanks to the Great War, though as third son he is yet to know this. A great-aunt (Prime Minister Asquith's wife, no less) refines her contempt for her sister-in-law, who already "lives in a climate of fears and premonitions." Inheritance and expectation, it is clear, are a concern for all. But even on the "Glorious Twelfth," the children are more rebellious than the adult aristos might like--as the shadows in the family photo reveal:

It's clear the photographer has had difficulty with them, because the land slopes away at this point from the party on the rug, and the children all appear to have large feet--something Pamela's daughter Clarissa--Clare--will be angry about right up to the day she dies. The children, although told by their father to keep absolutely still, are slightly out of focus, as if they were growing so fast the camera was unable to capture them...
Tennant's virtuoso beginning is far more than a memory-picture: here as throughout she elegantly dips in out and of each person's thoughts and even dreams, excavating obsessions and unearthing the ends to which several will come. (Not for nothing did Karl Miller term Strangers her "best novel to date" in the Times Literary Supplement in 1998.)

Much later, Tennant refers to "the strange yet known monsters who are my family," but her memoir is not just a pageant of eccentrics and aesthetes. (Readers will now be most familiar with her Uncle Stephen, famously beautiful in his youth--even TB only improves his looks--and infamously pathetic in his old age.) As Tennant moves from 1912 to 1986--from pheasant shoots to sances in which mothers and servant lovers try to contact dead soldiers to an encounter with a smiling, dying nephew--she tries desperately to distinguish between truth and fantasy (others' and her own). Strangers is never straightforward, its very intricacies the author's attempts to tease out, and tease her way out of, her family's "fatal pattern"--one of thwarted love and destructive unhappiness. Visiting Stephen in 1965, Tennant realizes that "everything here is devoted to murdering memory and keeping it intact at the same time." In Strangers her own aim--though often levitated by wit and weirdness--is even more devastating. --Kerry Fried

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