On Chapel Sands has already made something of a stir in the book world. First published last July, it was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award 2019 and was chosen by Radio 4 for serialisation last summer. Now, it appears in paperback, and having missed it the first time round I thought that I ought to make the effort to catch up with it.
The book tells the story of Cumming’s attempts to find the truth about her mother, Betty’s, background. Pretty much all that her mother knows is that she was adopted. However, as the search progresses it becomes apparent that there is something in her history that she has either truly forgotten or subliminally suppressed. This is the feature of the book that most people will probably have heard about, the fact that as a small child Betty was kidnapped while on Chapel Sands, near her Lincolnshire home, and was missing for three days before being returned unharmed. It is the search for the true reason behind this event that is the driving force of the book’s narrative.
Betty’s childhood was not particularly easy. Her father, George, was a difficult man given to fits of temper. Her mother, Veda, a far more placid character, was hard pushed to make ends meet in the small two up two down terraced house that Betty knew as home. Although she eventually “escapes“ to Edinburgh, where at art college she meets Cumming’s father, Betty, now known as Elizabeth, is in many ways marked by her childhood for the rest of her life. The only evidence that the family can find about her earlier history comes in the form of a number of photos, almost all of which appear to have been taken by George, and it is through the interpretation of these that Cumming weaves her narrative about the gradual discovery of what happened to her mother on Chapel Sands and why.
The interpretation of images is a central theme within the book. Cumming herself has a background in writing about art and artists and she laces her narrative with discussions of the work of painters such as Bruegel the elder, Vuillard, Ravilious, Seurat and Degas, as well as making many references to the poet Tennyson, who grew up in a nearby village. She focuses particularly on Bruegel’s interpretation of The Fall of Icarus, where the viewer almost certainly concentrates her or his attention on aspects of the work which have nothing to do with the title, given that the real import of the painting is hidden away in a tiny detail. This, she argues, is indicative of what happened in her mother’s story, important facts have been lost, concealed behind the larger canvas of every day life. All around us are stories that cannot be squared or circled or turned into something so easily defined, she suggests, stories that are larger and more unexpected than we ever recognise because the tiny detail that gives them the relevance is lost, or deliberately underplayed. Chasing down such details brings to light unexpected and vital aspects of Betty’s story.
I recognise that this is a very well written and very well researched book, well worthy of the accolades that it has received. I can think of a number of people to whom I would give it secure in the knowledge that they would derive considerable pleasure from the reading. However, it was a book I struggled with, mainly I think because of the way in which it is structured. Cumming, in a manner that reflects the piecemeal and often tortuous way in which her mother came to understand the truth about her background, offers the reader a very slow and convoluted reveal. While many will appreciate the small details that she offers about her mother’s upbringing, I found myself wanting to say, please, just tell me what happened. Who took Betty from the beach that day and why? What is the truth about her background, about her adoption, about the way in which George treats her? This, I am sure, is a reflection of my own preference for a plot driven narrative. It is certainly not a fault with the book. Cumming chooses to explore all the tiny byways of her mother’s life and the family’s search for the truth. There is absolutely nothing wrong in this. It just wasn’t for me.
With thanks to Random House UK, Vintage Publishing and NetGalley for a review copy.