I fell in love with Morgan McCarthy’s writing last year, when I read, The Outline of Love, a wonderful debut novel. And so I was intrigued when a read about this, her second novel, which mixes a Greek myth with a contemporary coming of age. I thought it might be the perfect coming together of writing style and subject matter.
Persephone Triebold grew up on a country estate in the Scottish Highlands, the only child of a widowed father who was anxious that she shouldn’t be disadvantaged by her circumstances, and that she should always know how much her mother had loved her. She grew up to be self possessed, self aware, confident of her place and importance in the world and yet just a little bit insecure, and little too anxious to be like, and liked by, her peers.
She wasn’t entirely likeable, but she was utterly believable, and more than interesting enough for me to want to follow her story.
Persephone travelled to London to study, and she fell into student life quite naturally. That world lived and breathed, just as she did, and it was lovely to watch her take in the wonders and the horrors of the big city.
There was just one thing missing: the grand romance that she had imagined, that she had waited for, for such a long time.
Persephone was intrigued when her friends began to talk excitedly about Leo Ford’s return to London. He had been the frontman of an indie band, he had reinvented himself as a novelist, he was celebrated, and he was the subject of intense media speculation. That made him an ideal object of infatuation.
They all wanted to find a way into his social set, and into his life. It seemed impossible but, as the result of an unfeasibly wonderful stroke of luck, Persephone did it.
But, close as she got, Leo remained elusive. She never felt that she really knew him, or understood him. Or that he trusted her with his feelings, or his history.
As Persephone wondered about her place in Leo’s life she was approached by a journalist. He told her that he was working on a story about Leo’s past, about his family, about how had become what he was. She didn’t want to believe him, she didn’t want to know, but she knew she had to do something ….
The picture that Morgan McCarthy painted of Persephone’s first year in London, was pitch perfect, with every detail right, and so very, very beautifully written. And when she was at the centre of the story I was captivated. I saw the world through her eyes, and I understood what she did and why she did it.
But there were problems.
I couldn’t quite believe in Leo, or his drug addict turned academic sister Ivy. I understood that they kept their secrets, but they didn’t live and breathe, they were characters put in place so that the story could be played out.
And the echoing of the classical story of Persephone and Demeter was rather heavy handed. The naming of Persephone, the frequent mention of how unusual her name was, Ivy’s book that retold that story, Persephone’s reading of that book… It was all too much, and it compromised the story.
Those flaws weren’t fatal, but they were distractions.
The final revelation was not entirely surprising, but it did make sense of the story. Far, far more interesting though was Persephone’s reaction, and what she came to realise about love, friendship, family, life ….
She came of age.
I still think that Morgan McCarthy is a wonderful writer. She paints characters and worlds so beautifully, understanding and capturing every nuance.
But, maybe because she has tied this story to another, she has written a good book, when I think she has the potential to write a very good, and maybe a great book.