A book that looks at what is lost on many levels. Through references to “Anna Karenina” and the novels of Anthony Trollope, this is a book of missed things and the habit of living in a mess. A mixture of short bursts of thought and longer accounts of the messiness of contemporary life, this is an honest reckoning of everything from the contents of handbags to children’s need for fish fingers. The clever use of language throughout this book renders even the most trivial meaningful, and the touching memorable. The minute experiences of train travel is linked to the fictional account of Anna’s, as those who read are seen as symbolic of all readers who can lose themselves in a book. Not a novel, but lots of ideas and reminiscences of life and love, both married and lover, things lost and found. This is a book that looks at Kate Field, mysterious muse of Anthony Trollope, as well as the behaviour of a teenager bereaved at the death of a father. It is the importance of objects in our lives which speak of lives lived, and particularly those cut short, as everyone seems to be on a journey. The subtitle of this book, “An Exhibition of Myself” reveals the painfully honest nature of this text, and the curious mixture of sophistication and sorrow which runs throughout. I was intrigued and pleased to be given the opportunity to read and review this unique book.
“All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is a quotation from Tolstoy that will run throughout the book. Not that Ratcliffe’s family is unhappy, but she knows of the constant demands of children, of family life, and regards time away on her own as an opportunity to be messy in her own way. The magic of photography reveals so much over the years, from the first experiments with chemicals and glass, through to the occupation of a mysterious lover who takes many photographs. Travel on the underground has its own memories of complicated journeys to school in the company of her beloved father, whose early death haunts the book. As she thinks about his briefcase, left empty of the everyday things he carried, the echo is of the objects which include a bag which she has seen in the Tolstoy museum. More significantly she details the ideas of handbags, the bags carried by women who include Anna, Ratcliffe’s own mother, and Radcliffe herself. The difficulties of finding a bag which will contain all the necessities as well as all the things that accumulate, especially when travelling with children, is particularly significant. The book which can be carried, is indeed carried by Anna, is important, especially when that book is an imaginary Trollope novel, which brings the text back to the enigmatic Kate Field. She worked to advertise the newly manufactured telephone, which reminds Radcliffe of her use of the old fashioned phone as a teenager.
As Forster emphasised in his novel, this is a book of the vital importance of connections, the links with the past and the present, the mess and the slender chains which connect memories via objects, places with people. This book looks at literature, films and the things that are lost, whether today or long ago, and what they all mean to our lives. This is an unusual book which has a unique format, which soon becomes absorbing. Ratcliffe draws in so many elements that a reread will be necessary to really begin to tie up all the strands. I recommend this as a challenging read which is essentially the story of a life in all its complexity and messy reality.