The Sunday Telegraph

Novel of the week Francesca Carington


- by Esther Freud

368PP, BLOOMSBURY, £16.99, EBOOK £11.89

In her ninth novel Esther Freud – of Hideous Kinky and also dynastic fame – is inspired by her Irish mother’s family history. I Couldn’t Love You More is the answer to a “what if ”: what would have happened if her mother, who became pregnant by artist Lucian Freud at 18, had not managed to keep her baby secret from her Catholic family?

On the cusp of the 1960s, 18-year-old Rosaleen is dating Felix Lichtman, “a Jew of no known occupation”, according to the anonymous note sent to her parents, but actually a much older, famous sculptor. She writes home to Ireland about her life as a journalist at the Express (she actually works in the post room), while happily flitting through a nicely evoked Soho demi-monde. We know where this is going – in part thanks to the 1990s-set testimony of Kate, an artist married to an alcoholic and struggling to raise their daughter Freya alone. Kate, who was adopted as a baby, is looking for her birth mother, a search which brings her to Cork. The final thread is the story of Aoife, Rosaleen’s mother, who wonders what became of her daughter. Memories confuse an already jumpy timeline, but the warmhearte­d weepiness of the last third of the book makes up for some of its flaws.

What unites all three women is an experience of love as loss. Freya, preoccupie­d with death, tells her mother, “I’ll love you even when you’re dead”; Rosaleen spends mornings loving every remembered inch of her lost baby. The novel’s emotional power, however, lies in the beautifull­y realised character of Aoife, who chooses ignorance over knowledge, pushing doubts aside in favour of a neater unknown. She stands by a man who doesn’t even call her by her name (“Eva” or “woman”) over a daughter: “There were days even now when Aoife’s heart was hard with unforgivin­g, but children, they left you, and the man you married, he was there for better or for worse.”

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