Fiction – paperback; Pen Press Publishers; 308 pages; 2006. Review copy courtesy of the author.
I haven’t read a rollicking good family-saga-cum-romance for a very long time, so I was pleased to pick up Maria Savva’s second novel, A Time to Tell, for a leisurely Saturday afternoon read this past weekend. It turned out to be perfect fare for someone currently suffering from a chest infection, and I ploughed through it in one sitting.
The novel charts the course of Cara Hughes’ life over a 50-year period from the early 1950s to the beginning of the 21st century. From her first doomed love affair and a failed suicide attempt, to marriage and motherhood, the book actually opens at the end of Cara’s life as a 60-something widowed invalid living with the only relation that will have her — a granddaughter caught up in an abusive marriage.
Unusually, the story does not follow a reverse chronological order as you would expect from such a starting point, but jumps backwards and forwards in time, a style that reflects Cara’s memories as and when they occur to her. Through this disjointed third-person narrative we slowly learn more about Cara’s long life: her joys and sorrows, her trials and tribulations, and the very many secrets she has kept hidden from her family, including the fact that the father of her first-born was not the man she married but the one for which, some 50 years later, she still harbours strong affection.
We also get introduced to a vast array of characters — three children, one of whom has been missing for 16 years, various grandchildren, an estranged sister, and an assortment of in-laws — so many , in fact, that it is almost impossible to keep track of who’s who. Before long, the reader begins to build a picture of a large, complicated and dysfunctional family that is falling apart at the seams.
But Cara only begins to reassess her own familial values and relationships and to regret some of her past actions when she is shunted off to live with an older sister she hasn’t spoken to in more than two decades. Here, in the home in which she grew up, Cara is forced to confront some of her most painful memories…
The best part about this rather ambitious novel is Savva’s careful drip feed of information, so that you’re never quite sure what sordid revelation or family secret is going to be unveiled next. The structure of the novel is like an onion, with layer upon layer being peeled away. It’s a delicious read, with a powerful, surprising and very neat conclusion.
But as much as I enjoyed this book — I was reminded on more than one occasion of the master story-telling abilities of Maeve Binchy — I also had some problems with it, not the least of which is the author’s slight tendency towards melodrama. Some of the characters also behave inconsistently and several scenes need fleshing out, as they felt too rushed and not quite authentic enough. The dialogue, at times, does not always ring true.
But on the whole the narrative is very strong and the simple prose style moves things along at an energetic pace. A Time to Tell is an entertaining, multi-layered story that looks at the ties that bind people together and the unspoken words that drive them apart.