Love, long­ing and loss

Ysenda Max­tone Gra­ham can’t re­sist another painfully hon­est mem­oir from a mem­ber of one of Bri­tain’s lead­ing lit­er­ary fam­i­lies

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

Mem­oir The Truth Game Vanessa Ni­col­son (Quar­tet Books, £15)

THAT tell­tale miss­ing ‘h’ in ‘Ni­col­son’: it must be yet another book from the siss­inghurst fam­ily, who (as was writ­ten about the Fraser fam­ily) are so prodi­giously lit­er­ary ‘that they might as well give birth in the win­dow of Wh­smith’. i ap­plaud the prodi­gious­ness of the Ni­col­sons: i can never re­sist pick­ing up a book by yet another one of them, crav­ing fur­ther in­sights into the fam­ily for whom box hedges and fa­mil­ial pain are so exquisitely in­ter­twined.

This one is by Vanessa, the child of Nigel’s brother Ben and his wife, Luisa Ver­tova. it’s a fol­lowup mem­oir to her ac­claimed Have You Been Good?. here, she rakes over the same ma­te­rial: par­ents who di­vorced when she was seven; im­pos­si­bly volatile ital­ian mother; adorable fa­ther who was con­gen­i­tally gay, hence hope­lessly fail­ing mar­riage; teenage­hood of great in­se­cu­rity and need­i­ness; adult­hood of re­cur­ring sui­ci­dal urges; and the tragedy of los­ing her daugh­ter Rosa, who died of an epilep­tic seizure in a swim­ming pool at the age of 19. so much pain, and it’s all still pretty raw here.

she di­vides the book into 12 chap­ters, each with the name of a per­son who has meant some­thing to her: these peo­ple are the prisms through which she ex­am­ines her life. The chap­ters vary in qual­ity. The first, ‘Fa­ther’, about Ben, is fas­ci­nat­ing. Writ­ten in the third per­son, it gives a glimpse of the sweet, af­fec­tion­ate re­la­tion­ship she had with her fa­ther.

she quotes at length from Ben’s diary en­tries about ‘David’, the ox­ford un­der­grad­u­ate he was pas­sion­ately in love with. in self­tor­ment­ing style, Ben de­scribes his pain when the fickle David falls out of love with him a year later. ‘Then don’t get mar­ried to a woman, if you’re gay!’ we want to shout at him now, but he did, and it was a dis­as­ter.

Then, we have ‘Julie’, about the girl who briefly lived in the same build­ing in Florence in which Vanessa lived with her grand­par­ents af­ter her par­ents’ di­vorce (‘Nonna died, Nonno be­came crazy and my mother de­pressed, all in the space of a few weeks’).

Then comes ‘Mr Right’, about the beau­ti­ful boy she was in­fat­u­ated with at univer­sity. They slept to­gether and she ad­mit­ted to him the next morn­ing that she had been in love with him for ages and that to­tally put him off.

Then comes ‘Pat’, about a com­pli­cated friend­ship: both girls were ‘long­ing for af­fec­tion, floun­der­ing in an age of un­fet­tered sex­ual free­dom’ and so on. This is where it can all get a bit me­an­der­ing and self-in­dul­gent: Miss Ni­col­son draws us into long­for­got­ten ar­eas of angst, writ­ing things such as ‘if you should ever see this, Pat, you may well feel fur­ther ag­grieved’.

so much raw pain: there’s a chap­ter called ‘Em & Jean’, in which she de­scribes her stay in a hor­ri­ble psy­chi­atric in­sti­tu­tion when her daugh­ters were young: Em and Jean were in her ward and all three were mis­er­able in dif­fer­ent ways but be­came close.

There’s another chap­ter called ‘Adam’, which i ex­pected to be about her first cousin Adam Ni­col­son, but the Adam in ques­tion was ac­tu­ally the boyfriend of Rosa. Vanessa meets him af­ter Rosa’s death and ad­mits that she sent him a mes­sage from Rosa’s Face­book page af­ter her death, say­ing ‘Don’t you think it’s a bit too soon to fall in love again?’.

That is a brave thing to con­fess to a sin­gle per­son, let alone to pub­lish in a book, but Vanessa has a strong con­fes­sional urge. she and her fa­ther used to play ‘the truth game’, ask­ing each other search­ing ques­tions de­mand­ing the truth, and this book is an eye-open­ing con­tin­u­a­tion of that dan­ger­ous game.

Vanessa as a teenager with her fa­ther Ben Ni­col­son, 1973

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