by Lucy Wadham
The story begins in a hamlet near Braganca, Portugal, with the conception of dizygotic twins, Aisha and Jose. It is so hot in 1980 that "the fish boiled alive in the river and floated, milky eyed, to the surface", and an olive tree died that had given shade to the Romans as they marched from the coast.
As sometimes happens with such twins one is much the stronger: as they grow up it is Aisha who protects and speaks for her brother. She is articulate, intelligent and brave, with a fierce ambition to get away from their village. Jose lives in her shadow; he is a beautiful boy, gentle but fearless in his own way. He refuses to speak, and the superstitious and archaic villagers believe it is a retribution for the sin of his parents. Aisha, clever at school, makes her way to Paris, unaware of the pain her abandonment causes her twin.
In the excitement of Paris (which Wadham clearly loves), Aisha works as a chambermaid, then a nanny to spoilt French children whose father she seduces. She studies hard and makes her way to the Sorbonne. Hearing from her old schoolmistress that her brother is in steep decline, she sends Jose his bus fare to Paris, but is quite unprepared for the change in him.
Lucy Wadham is uncannily perceptive about the widely differing characters in her book. She lets Aisha tell her own story clearly and dispassionately. This novel is full of suspense, some tragedy, humour and compassion; it is well constructed, and the work of a natural and gifted storyteller. It travels from deepest rural Portugal to smart fashionable Paris, through the Sorbonne, to the bleak tower blocks of Blanville and on through life in California and Marrakech.
Lucy Wadham is worldly and sophisticated, and writes with the simplicity of the true professional. She holds a mirror up to us all and says "Take a good look at yourselves". But she tends not to judge other people, and lets nothing get in the way of her fast moving plot. There are pages in the book to savour and reread, as when she is on the step of her California house, feeding her baby:
"It is late September and the turkey buzzards are floating above the hills on the far side of the lagoon. On the sand bars, just out of view, seals will be lying like indolent eunuchs, catching the last warmth of the day and of the season. The sky and water are touched with gold and the dry grass on the hills is caramel, the colour of this baby's hair"