The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson by Helen Kitson is a trip through the mind of a writer with a secret. An author who never authored again - her one book was her only book, because her secret held her back. Or was it her guilt? This book is a mystery, a tale of jealousy and friendship, but ultimately, it is a novel about truth.
In essence: The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson by Helen Kitson
Some novels are truly special – remarkable, even. They stay in the mind of their readers forever. Gabrielle Price was once the author of one such book, but that was more than twenty years ago, and she’s now housekeeper to a vicar. Haunted by the memory of her long-dead best friend, she is living the most ordinary life she can imagine when into it comes Simon, handsome, young, vivacious, manipulative and mysterious. Bit-by-bit, piece-by-piece, Simon forces her to look at every aspect of her life and consider ‘what if?’ Reckless and vulnerable, Gabrielle faces her most terrible regrets with gently increasing bravery. But she never once openly tells the whole truth.
Deliciously flawed characters
This is the section in my reviews that I choose to highlight ‘what’s special’ about the book. But the trouble with The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson is that there are just too many specials. And some of them would let the cat out of the bag. So I’ll focus on the characters, and you’ll have to read the book to consume the rest.
Much is made in the writing trade that it’s important for characters – especially protagonists – to be likeable in some way. But that doesn’t mean they have to be saccharine ‘good people’. Characters who are ‘good’ with just a couple of superficial flaws lack the nuances of humanity. Gabrielle Price is a thoroughly flawed character: too weak to push herself to university; haunted by the death of her erstwhile best friend; desperate for the love of someone special, but certain that there will be no-one of that description. She has wilted over the years into a woman who is prepared to take second best, whether it’s jobs, married lovers or lifestyle, and worse: to pretend that’s what she wanted. She’s never let go or moved on emotionally from her teenage years – and hasn’t really matured, despite seeming frumpily older than her mid-forties middle age. Nevertheless, she’s likeable in her flawedness.
Gabrielle has the depth to be kind and spiteful; passionate and repressed; clever and foolish. She has the social awareness to appreciate all the people in her life at the face value they present – and to observe what they might be like underneath. Later, she meets other – older – women who are entirely aware of their own characters and have a maturity that somehow encourages her to step up and face herself. There’s a modicum of hope for Gabrielle, and there’s nothing uninteresting about her, despite her self-deprecating, matter-of-fact narration. She grows, as a person, from the moment Simon enters her life.
Simon, too, is deeply flawed. Beautiful, but troubled, manipulative to the edge of abusive, and we never truly get to know him, because he never reveals his whole self to Gabrielle. But the narrative provides perfect accuracy of the behaviour of someone whose mental and emotional state is tied up in his obsession to uncover another person’s secret. And uncover it he does. To a point. For her own good, you understand.
The relationship that develops between these two is deeply uncomfortable at times and almost sordid. Simon is ignoble enough to use sex to push Gabrielle to face her demons, and she – though fully aware of what is happening – is helpless in the face of her desire to be loved. It’s a familiar tale for many women – just one of the minor truths that this novel forces the reader to face.
Will you like it?
This isn’t a simple story. It’s a complex weave of character backstories and intentions, and to get the full effect you have to read between the lines. The truth (if that’s what it is) is concealed as effectively as it is hidden in the character’s mind, and it wouldn’t be right any other way.
There’s plenty about it to enjoy, though, however you choose to read it.
On the surface, it’s a chatty tale – a light read, even – about a bizarre situation that develops quickly, outside of the protagonist’s control. It’s full of ‘truths’ – passing reinterpretations of what people say (and what they really mean);
“He said he was a nervous passenger, which I took to be a euphemism for disliking women drivers.”
throwaway observations on social class and hints of that very English sense of a person’s ‘place’;
‘While I was Miss and he was Mr, the proper boundary was maintained: our relationship friendly, but rarely confidential.’
knife-sharp descriptions of the things baffled parents say about grown-up children with mental health problems;
‘They were aware she was, as her mother expressed it, “having a bit of a crisis”, but they put it down to the pressure of studying for exams.’
and the pathos of childhood friendships as they develop into nothing. Its comments stray into the human condition, which is something most writers can only dream of documenting:
“I had never been in love. Lovers, yes, but only the simulacrum of love.”
Kitson puts into words what many people must feel about their lives when they do not have the everyday vocabulary and wider perspective to think it, and it’s satiating to read a novel that makes accurate observations about recognisable types of people.
Below the skin, however, this story is utterly gripping. The mystery is slowly opened out, like a complex origami creature being unfolded. The pacing is excellent – the first big revelations are revealed at exactly halfway through the book – and right to the very end you still don’t know for sure what will happen next. This is an artful post-modern story where truth – as in real life – is both subjective and objective, and it’s left up to you to decide what it is.
It is eminently readable and accessible, with some great vocabulary, well-drawn characters and is an imaginative tale about ordinary people (a few of whom are writers). Because ordinary people are extraordinary too. Especially in The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson by Helen Kitson.
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by Helen Kitson
Gabrielle has deliberately made an innocuous and mundane life for herself. But 20 years after her one and only brilliant novel was published, her secrets are in danger of being exposed.
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