Book Review: Saints and Adventurers by Frances Gapper

saints and adventurers by frances gapper

On the day my brother died, when I was fourteen, a grey, wet, windy day in late August, my grandmother drowned the cat.

This is another one of the Women’s Press books that I’ve managed to get my hands on. It’s a story of grief, madness and menstruation; a work full of transformations. In many ways, it was very much of its time. And then again, the book was just full of characters that I recognised – people from my life who had snuck into the pages and were waving out at me.

It’s told by Jenny, who is growing up after her brother’s death. Her mother will not talk about her feelings, is a tightly controlled and deeply angry woman. And her grandmother is the opposite in so many ways; a Corsican wise-woman plying her trade in Surbiton. It’s a dizzying portrait of adolescence, of all the different ways to go mad. There are angels that turn up and cats that die and a father who simply has no idea and spends all his time writing a book about butterflies and emerging only when the tea runs out.

There are many moments when I laughed out loud. And many when I cried. Jenny’s best friend, Alicia, is starving herself and recites poetry backwards. Her mother retreats into a world she can control. Her grandmother drowns cats and fixes electrics and talks about blood and death and magic. Jenny’ sort-of boyfriend is endearing, in a hopeless way; his parents are Freudian psychoanalysts and tried to raise him to be normal (it backfired). And Jenny is lost and wandering, trying to grow up and not knowing how or what it means.

It’s a rich, rich work that spoke to me very deeply. It didn’t offer solutions or even take clear sides. Here was a family being a family, which is a much more complicated endeavour than most people think. There’s religion and sex and all the strange things that get thrown up during adolescence and a wry sense of humour that will suddenly turn in on itself, laughing at the notion of the book. Spirits and ghosts and humans. Basically, I really really enjoyed this book but it’s very hard to review!

Rating: read this book. Climb a hill and scream.

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