Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 12, 2016

The Meaning of Grace, by Deborah Forster #BookReview

The Meaning of GraceI feel a bit guilty about reviewing this book four years after its release in 2012.  I bought it as soon as I saw it because I was so impressed by Deborah Forster’s first novel The Book of Emmett (2009, see my review).  I was not the only one impressed: The Book of Emmett was nominated for the Miles Franklin and for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, and it won the Dobbie. Well,  The Meaning of Grace has turned out to be equally impressive but now readers who want to get hold of a copy may have to hunt about a bit…

Forster’s great strength lies in characterisation, and in this novel as in its predecessor she focuses on the dysfunctional family.  At the beginning of the novel the estranged members of the Fisher family need to come together because Grace, mother to two adult daughters and a son, is – after a brief remission – advised that the cancer is back.   At Grace’s bedside in the hospital that night is loyal, reliable, stay-at-home Edie who has had more than her fair share of troubles, and it falls to her to ring her absentee sister Juliet – who has had more than her fair share of life’s good times, including running away to New York with Edie’s husband.  When the social worker suggests a hospice, Juliet won’t countenance it, and Edie caves in as she always has, knowing full well that neither Juliet nor their immature brother Ted will be there to help.  There is no father.  A sad, hopeless man whose depression haunted the children’s young lives until Grace had had enough and left him, Ian committed suicide some years ago.

A dying mother, a father dead in terrible circumstances, a fraught relationship between sisters and a useless brother – this novel could have been dreary or maudlin but trust me, it’s not.  Forster builds a picture of people who are more than the things that happen to them with light touches of humour, poignant memories of family life, satisfying episodes of childhood revenge, and wise restraint when depicting grief.

For example, this Christmas memory, from a time when Ian has reached the stage where it’s as much as he can do to make the breakfast toast, and he has warned the children that there will be no Father Christmas this year.  Edie, however, holds a grain of hope because everyone knew he was not the boss, and on the day there is this:

Like a little stalking party of hunters, the three approach the room and there, in the middle of the floor, before the purple vinyl couch with the wonky leg, is something completely unexpected.  It’s a child’s inflatable paddling pool blown up to its full size.  There’s a pond in the lounge room with dolphins and fish cavorting along its puffy sides, and if these sea creatures had sprung to life and swum towards them singing Christmas carols, they could not have been more amazed.

No sound comes from their parents’ room and the trinity of kids in their raggedy night clothes huddle before the pool.  Then they move towards it as one and catch a glint of its riches together.  And the closer it gets, the more it shines.  Before them is a carpet of shining lollies all over the bottom of the paddling pool.  More lollies than they have ever seen – red and green and blue and yellow, some wrapped, some loose, redskins and cobbers and chocolate bullets and smarties and crunchy cellophane-wrapped lollies.  They stand beside that little pool, considering their options in silence.  Should they get in?  But even given the beauty of the vision, the question weighs on them: is this for us?  (p. 21)

Little Ted in his night-wet nappy solves the problem for them by clambering in and grabbing lollies, cellophane and all.  The book is full of arresting images like this that can’t help but rouse a smile.

A close observer of family dynamics, Forster reminds me of Charlotte Wood at her best (in The Children, and in Animal People). There is that same genius at capturing the hostilities of children and their meditations on parents who to them remain enigmas.  In Forster’s novel, adulthood brings resignation and acceptance of the inexplicable nature of other people, punctuated by lapses into long-suppressed hostility, unresolved curiosities or confessions about long-hidden bad behaviour.  People saying and doing stupid things, knowing as they speak and act that they will regret it.  There is also that same exploration of the mysteries of adulthood, still learning as we all must, about how to deal with unwelcome aspects of life:

‘It’s good to see you,’ Jules says.

‘Yes, I suppose it’s good to see you too,’ Edith snaps and silence laces them down.  It’s as if someone broke the dial on all her actions and everything is cranked up.  She regrets the accidental snapping, if only because it wasn’t that much fun.  When you snap you should at least mean it. And she starts a little debate within on the Etiquette of Snapping when she is standing in front of the sister she hasn’t seen since the last fight in hospital.  The one who ran off with her husband and had his child and then sent her home for Edie to raise, which turned out to be the kindest thing anyone has ever done for her.  Still, she hates this woman and, so it seems, she always will. (p. 259)

Forster also captures that awful moment when we realise that nothing can prepare us for the death of a parent.  We are not ever going to be ready for it.

And now here she is and everything is falling apart, like some kind of ending.  How can this all be happening on a day in May, right here and now, when it’s coming up to the right time for Grace to die, for the force of Grace to be released?  And on a day when it’s been decided Edie’s old enough to be able to cope with the death of her mother?  No.  Well, she won’t ever be that old, not for that kind of desolation.  She smooths the cotton blanket with the red stripe.  That won’t be possible.  (p.9)

Grace is a most imperfect mother: selfish, thoughtless, unobservant, preoccupied with other things, and prone to betrayals large and small.  Not very good at communicating; not very good at keeping her family together.  But what I really liked about this book is that Grace, for all her flaws, is loved by all her children.

Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best reviewed this novel in a more timely manner than I have.  See also Helen Elliot at the SMH.

Author: Deborah Forster
Title: The Meaning of Grave
Publisher: Vintage, (an imprint of Penguin Random House) 2012
ISBN: 9781742755342
Personal copy, purchased from Reader’s Feast, $32.95

Available from
Fishpond: The Meaning of Grace


Responses

  1. Oh, I didn’t know she had another one out. I loved her first. Must investigate further…

    • I have my fingers crossed that there will be another one in the pipeline…

  2. Sounds like the type of book I’d love! The best stories have humour and sadness, and flawed people who are still lovable. After all, that’s what real life is …

    • I think so too. There are a lot of Australian novels around that are about dysfunctional families but IMO few of them are as fundamentally honest as this one.

  3. Thanks for these comprehensive reviews. I have to say that the last paragraph was the ultimate hook for me: a deeply flawed mother who still earns unconditional love from her children.

    • It’s a strange thing, the human heart. Most of us set high standards for how we think our parents should behave, and it’s easy to be judgemental about them. Then when we become parents ourselves, and fail the same tests, it can be confronting. I think this book is less about accumulated betrayals and more about the slow process of reconciliation. It made me feel that there can be hope for all of us.


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