How much of our fate is written in our blood? How much of our lives are our own responsibility? How important is it to know yourself, and how much can you learn through the study of your family’s history? These are the questions asked and (to an extent) answered in Carly Holmes’ darkly numinous novel The Scrapbook. In it, three generations of women live out their variously twisted lives, ‘stealing’ men who had already been claimed by others (as though any human being could ever really belong to any other) while never being able to face the darkness in their own souls.
The novel is told from the perspective of Fern, a troubled young woman who has returned to the island she grew up on in order to care for her ailing, alcoholic mother (Iris) who has spent her life playing the role of the woman at the window, waiting for the return of the man she had on whatever weekends he could glean from his other family, his unknown wife. Iris was a neglectful mother (and the depiction of her absentminded abuse is brilliantly written – her selfishness is singular in literature. Not every mother could share a bed with a child and never bring herself to touch it) and Fern responds to this by blaming and hating her father, violently attacking him whenever he visits. She became a feral, pagan child, reminding me of a savage Maggie Tulliver, who was unable to trust enough to form attachments to anyone save her bitter, witchy grandmother.
The title of the book refers to a book of spells that Grandma Ivy spends the last years of her life cradling in her unsteady lap. Most of the spells seem harmless enough, cures for warts or fertile gardens, but two are very dangerous indeed. There is a spell for forgetting (only used once) that was made to warp minds, and a love spell that was intended to alter the direction of the heart. The spells themselves are fierce, earthy. They have jagged edges, and a powerful thrust; they cut, as real magic should. Here is an excerpt from the love-spell most central to the plot:
Take in your cupped palms
two flaming pieces of fire opal
And two gentling pieces of rose quartz.
Linger a while with sweet thoughts.
Lash each crystal to your chest with a plait of red silk
lined above your heart’s beat
and leave them for five days and nights.
Never allow so much as a sliver of breath to separate them
from the warmth and touch of your flesh.
Glaze these crystals with your body’s sweat.
But, of course, there are consequences. The spells negate free will, and as the closing couplet reminds us, that is a terrible responsibility:
Be sure and be true to your love for evermore.
A certain manipulation of their original fate will be your cross to bear.
Every woman in this story bears a heavy, well-earned cross.
The plot centres around Fern’s reluctant search for her father. It is Iris’s dying wish that fern find the man who abandoned the woman who lived only to be the object that would satisfy his craving, and the daughter who rejected his hands and his heart. She sifts through the sad and empty shell her mother made of her grandmother’s house, and as she uncovers letters and photographs (as the small, stolen secret she carries in her shuddering womb begins to blossom) the fragments of her history start shifting into place. In this broken, reassembled mirror she begins to see her own life clearly for the first time. Fern watches the circular pattern of her own destructive life play out in the lives of her mother and grandmother and although each woman gets what she undoubtedly wants, it’s up to the reader to decide if any of their stories end happily.
As for the writing; it is superb. There are scenes that are reminiscent of the high gothic house-based psychology found in Jane Eyre, others (like the wonderful scene where the feverish, adolescent Fern spits out what she believes to be the swallowed soul of her grandmother; a black phlegm-bird that circles and caws, clawing the air above her head) that are reminiscent of the best of Neil Gaiman. The story is claustrophobic, but well-paced; a beautiful reminder that not every form of love is healthy, and the bonds we form (the bonds that strengthen us) are not always good.
The Scrapbook has just been released in paperback and it is available HERE