Him by Clare Empson – a novel of mystery and obsessive love

A romantic obsession that changes lives is not an unusual theme for a book, but in this novel it is the main point from which all other actions flow. A picture of alternative family groups, the painful loss of parents and a wealthy lifestyle culminate in a woman suffering from elective mutism. Silence is a powerful element in a novel of remembering and sorrow, as Catherine takes refuge from all that she cannot accept. Empson’s strength is in making a variety of characters really come alive,as they negotiate the past and present with so many questions.

I have been fascinated to discover this book, and grateful to have the opportunity to read and review it.  

The book opens with Catherine relating her current situation, as she sits silently in hospital, recognising her favourite nurse, awaiting the arrival of her husband and children. They are baffled by her silence, hurt by her “elective mutism” as described by Greg, the psychiatrist. There has evidently been a traumatic event located at a large local house, something that Catherine has had a violent reaction to which has rendered her silent. The book switches to fifteen years earlier in Catherine’s voice, as she describes the day Lucian arrived in a tutorial and first asked her out for lunch, which she declined. Then the narrative turns to four months ago when the family arrive in their new house in the country, when Catherine seizes a moment of privacy to look through a box of letters and papers relating to her relationship with “you”, Lucian, a rich and attractive man. He continues to feature in celebrity gossip frequently, but she is recalling a time when they were both students from seemingly different backgrounds, inseparable and powerfully in love. As Sam’s own infidelity is revealed, Lucian’s own account of four months before appears, as he describes a day spent with his long term group of friends, more like a family, as he learns of his mother’s death. Jack has been with him throughout his life, sent to Eton but from a family could barely afford it. Jack’s expensive tastes have kept him attached to Lucian who has inherited a sizeable fortune and a beautiful house. Harry is another member of the group, extremely wealthy but only now rejoicing in his great love for Ling, his new wife from Thailand. Together with two  women, Rachel and Alexa, they have all formed a group of wealth and are united in many ways, including the mystery of Catherine’s sudden desertion of Lucian when their passionate relationship was at its height. Mysteries are only gradually solved, attitudes challenged and hurt exposed as the time frame weaves between Catherine and Lucian, jumping from fifteen years before, to four months previously, to the present of Catherine’s bewildering silence.

This is a novel which deals with the continuing love, obsession with another person which shapes entire lives. Catherine has continued to love Lucian despite her marriage to Sam; Lucian has continued to miss and obsess about Catherine and retain the hurt of her sudden desertion despite his seemingly idyllic lifestyle. This powerful narrative is an account of love and life with strong emotions, movingly described as these characters leap out of the page with their dialogue, their actions and surroundings. I found this book engaging and emotional, a contemporary testimony to the sometimes destructive power of love.