Review: Family Likeness by Caitlin Davies

Family Likeness A vivid and affecting novel of loss, hope and long-held secrets set in the 1950’s and the present day.
What do we really inherit from our family? Is blood always thicker than water?
In a small Kent town in the 1950s, a bewildered little girl is growing up. Ostracized because of her colour, she tries her best to fit in, but nobody wants anything to do with her.
A nanny climbs the steps of a smart London address. She’s convinced that her connection to the family behind the door is more than professional.
And on the walls of an English stately home, amongst the family portraits, hangs an eighteenth-century oil painting of a mysterious black woman in a silk gown.
In ways both poignant and unexpected, the three lives are intertwined in a heartbreaking story of prejudice and motherless children, of chances missed, of war time secrets and the search for belonging…” – Publisher Summary

Family Likeness by Caitlin Davies pulls us into the lives of a mother and daughter – one who is simply relieved to have survived her past, and one who cannot let it go. At age four, Muriel Wilson’s Mam brings her to a children’s home. Despite the early hour, she tucks Muriel in for a nap, promising to be right by her side when Muriel wakes up. Unfortunately, Mam is not there, and Muriel spends the next twelve years living in the home – from 1950 to 1962. She is told she is not optimal for adoption because she is “half-caste” – that is, half English and half African-American. While she had never known her father, his racial legacy ensured that she would remain at the home, unwanted by visiting parents-to-be, for years to come. Upon coming of age and leaving the home, Muriel puts forth a half-hearted attempt to find her Mam, but when she comes to a dead end, she gives up and moves on with her life.

Years later Muriel’s daughter, Rosie, is compelled to research her mother’s parentage. She urges Muriel to request her records from her former children’s home. When she also comes to a dead end searching for her grandmother, she launches a full-fledged search for her grandfather that reaches all the way across the Atlantic to the United States of America. She soon learns of a family in London with a link to her grandfather in America. Rosie seeks out – and secures – a position as the family’s nanny in order to get closer to what Rosie believes will ultimately bring her into contact with the man who so heartlessly abandoned her grandmother and mother so many years ago.

Family Likeness touches on the racially charged climate of the 1940’s and beyond in England. I had never considered this before – I suppose I always thought it wasn’t like that over there. I didn’t know that the English used the “N-word”. I didn’t know that there was a level of racism that, if not to rival America’s own, at least ugly enough to be highly notable. I don’t like it when my ignorance is so blatantly pointed out to me like that. I think that this is a good book for raising awareness and helping readers to develop questions that will hopefully spur them on to further research on the matter – as it has for me. In the back of the book, Davies does list a few books that she found helpful or inspiring on race relations in England. I’m anxious to look them up.

Our story moves at an relaxed and languid pace – appropriate for some readers, frustrating for others. It is told via a dual narrative: Muriel Wilson and her daughter, Rosie. As we begin the novel, it is initially difficult to ascertain whom is whom and who is speaking when… but by Chapter Five you should have the hang of it. While the plot is about the search for a family’s ancestry, much time and attention is spent on the day-to-day minutiae of Rosie’s experiences as a nanny. The tale of Muriel’s years in the children’s home is also slowly shared as the book progresses. The novel is slow to reveal any revelations, but when it does… whew! Things get cray-cray in a hurry! Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen until we have nearly reached the end of the book. I found that it made up for the slow build-up – to a degree, anyway. One thing that I can anticipate critics whining about is the ending – it begins as a heartbreakiingly perfect ending, but then it’s as though Davies had a moment of doubt, turned back, and tied things up all neat and tidy on the last page. I personally didn’t mind; I like when things are neat and tidy. Alas, so many others like to whine and complain about neat and tidy. To each his own, say I! {But you should still read this book!}

Family Likeness by Caitlin Davies is available for purchase at a bookseller near you!

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Random House UK, Hutchinson/Cornerstone {via NetGalley}

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