As I read The Other Half of Me, Morgan McCarthy’s first novel, I heard echoes of many other stories. Stories of lives lived in grand country houses. Stories of troubled families harbouring dark secrets. Stories of privileged, but troubled, lives … and yet, through all of that, I heard a new and distinctive story.
Jonathan and his younger sister, Theo, grew up in a mansion in the Welsh countryside. They were terribly isolated. Their father was absent. Their mother, Alicia, was remote. And their neighbours held them at arm’s length. Only the staff – the housekeeper, the cook, the gardener – had any time for the children.
And so they clung to each other, and they ran wild.
Until their grandmother, socialite and hotel magnate, Eve Anthony, heard that something was amiss and came home to take charge of the situation. She was capable and she reassured her grandchildren, telling them stories that explained much about the past and their family situation.
Jonathan and Theo grew in different directions: he was practical and ambitious while she was needy and heedless of the consequences of her actions. The bond between them was strained.
Both began to question the gaps in Eve’s stories, and to wonder if those stories were true at all. And if Eve wasn’t telling the truth who was she trying to protect. Her grandchildren, her daughter, or herself?
Tragedy was inevitable. And the grief it caused might be too much to bear.
Morgan McCarthy tells her story beautifully. Her style is languid and lovely, her turn of phrase is charming, and she has a very nice way with a metaphor.
There is light and shade, and a lovely mixture of the mysterious and the elegiac.
She made a wise choice in appointing Jonathan as her narrator. He alone had the self-awareness and the momentum for the job, and I never doubted that I was seeing, hearing, understanding as he had. That meant a few details were missing, a few characters were less defined than they might have been, but that was the right choice, to hold the perspective.
The story moves slowly and there are long stretches when nothing happens, but the beauty of the writing, the wonderful evocation of the world that Jonathan moved through, the questions hanging in the air, all of that held me.
I worked out some of the answers, but not all of them.
The complex and changing relationship between brother and sister gave the story its heart and the ever-present sense of menace and foreboding gave it substance.
There were times when I felt that Morgan McCarthy was over-playing her hand. That the family was a little too wealthy, the Eve had done a little too much in a single lifetime, that Theo couldn’t really be so desperately short of self-knowledge …. but the story still worked, because all of the emotions and the psychology rang true.
Now that I have reached the end I realise that the story was moving, haunting, and quite beautifully written.
That’s a wonderful achievement for a first novel, and I am intrigued to read whatever else Morgan McCarthy may write in the future.