Inspired by Fitzgerald, Waugh and the grand mansions featured in The Great Gatsby and Brideshead Revisited, Morgan McCarthy turns Evendon, a rambling 15th century Welsh manor house, into her own literary landmark.
Rarely do debut novels achieve such impact but from its languid, lyrical prose through a cast of coruscating characters and onto its haunting climax, The Other Half of Me is a darkly impressive tale of family secrets, aching loneliness, faded grandeur and sibling love.
Assured and accomplished, this is a book to roll around the mind, a slow-burning, intriguing mystery which flames into an addictive and affecting elegy to the pains of youth and the powerful forces of the past.
In 1988, Jonathan and Theodora Anthony’s childhood at the family’s ancestral home near Carmarthen is one in which money is abundant but nurture is scarce.
Their grandmother Eve Anthony is a hotel magnate in America, their father died when they were very young and their mother Alicia is an alcoholic with no energy left to love them.
The brother and sister, as different in looks as they are in character, are largely left to roam around their sprawling estate, looking after only themselves and each other. They exist in an air of lethargic indifference to the real world with Jonathan motivated only by an overriding desire to protect his detached and ethereal sister Theo.
The household, run by a housekeeper, nanny, cook, maids and gardeners, lives under the sense of grandmother Eve’s absence, the feeling that something important is missing.
So when Eve returns to the family home after Alicia is carted off for treatment, she brings fresh impetus to Evendon’s torpid and heavy silence.
A commanding figure who is as enchanting as she is forbidding, Eve takes the two lost children under her wing, answering questions about their family history that have always been ignored, particularly the early years of their parents’ marriage which appeared to have been destroyed by ‘some kind of tornado’ that had flung out nothing salvageable.
But as Jonathan and Theo grow older and they struggle to form relationships and adapt to the outside world, they discover that much of what Eve has told them is a fiction and that something dark and sinister lies in their past...
Jonathan, narrator and the novel’s driving force, is our pilot through the minefield of this masterful coming-of-age drama, the spectrum through which we view Alicia’s emotional wasteland, the charismatic, complex Eve and the needy, impractical and dream-like Theo.
The sense of menace and foreboding that threads through the narrative adds depth and resonance whilst the unspoken but deep-rooted love between brother and sister is the subtle, gripping kernel of the story as they are propelled through misunderstanding, revelation, betrayal and grief.
But, as McCarthy’s story so exquisitely expounds, no relationship is perfect and it is those flaws that can cause a tragic unravelling of the ties that bind us together.
Emotional, convincing and absorbing, The Other Half of Me is a brilliant first novel from a promising new author.
(Headline Review, paperback, £7.99)