The Lost Chapter by Caroline Bishop
This is quite a complex book in some respects. Part of the story, alternate chapters, is a semi – autobiographical novel featuring “Lenny” and her friend “Fran” who are at a French finishing school in 1957. The other part of the story is concerned with Florence or Flo, an older lady who discovers that her friend Lilli, who she met at finishing school in the 1950s, has recorded their relationship in a novel which changes names and details, but is essentially her story. Flo has met a young woman called Alice who seems to be battling anxiety about her life and has suffered a trauma. This is a cleverly constructed novel, with Lilli/Lenny revealing her story of their time in France in the guise of an unreliable narrator who has altered details beyond the names. Flo’s reactions to the novel are well handled and are woven in with her concern for Alice who seems traumatised. The writing is powerful and this novel is particularly strong on women who influence each other. It has strong messages about the traumas women can suffer and their reactions to them. I found it a really enjoyable book with some strong themes and consistent, well established characters, and I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.
The book opens with a Prologue which turns out to be a quote from the novel “The Way We Were” by L.P.Henri. In it Lilli says that when asked if she would have changed anything, she claims she would not. She depicts herself as waiting for someone on an April evening in 1958 outside the finishing school that she has seen as an outdated prison. Indeed, as the novel within a novel proceeds the reader gets a picture of Chateau Mont d’Or as an institution that seeks to turn out a very old fashioned type of compliant young woman who is destined for a suitable marriage and can run a perfect household. Fran in the novel is a carefully brought up young woman who is very different from the dynamic Lenny. Lenny is an American who has come from a very different background, and has a very different set of expectations from life. Meanwhile in the present, Flo is an artist who lives alone and enjoys making lino prints. Alice turns up at her mother Carla’s suggestion, who feels that her very quiet daughter would benefit from contact with Flo in terms of walking her dog daily over the summer following her A level exams. Alice does need company, and there is an insight into her continual fear of traffic, attack and many other fears. Flo insists on Alice attempting printing and relaxing about life, but as Carla knows, she is very risk averse. Flo remembers parts of her life as she read’s Lilli’s novel, and realises that she made choices that she regrets. She feels that she must try to find Lilli in some way, and that she must do something to help Alice find her true identity.
This book is memorable for its message of moving forward, even when there are regrets. I felt that the novel within the book was well written in Lilli’s voice, and was a good match for the contemporary story. I found that I became very involved with the unfolding narratives within this book, and would recommend it as a slightly unusual and fascinating read.