When I look back for a place to start I always think of the same day—a day that didn’t seem unusual at the time, but was necessary to what came next. It is the last day of a backward trajectory: I arrive at it as if tracing a thrown ball back through the air to the spot where the thrower stood. At the time, of course, you don’t know that a ball was thrown. You hear the glass smash, then you rush to the window and look out, trying to see the culprit. This particular day begins with a summer morning; the lawn burning green; the new, nectared sunlight. I was nearly eight years old, sitting on the grass next to a patch of earth, having uprooted some irises to clear room for a castle made out of plastic blocks. I could see the top of Theo’s head through the remaining flowers. She was picking up ladybirds and snails and putting them lovingly into a toy pram, keeping up a gentle monologue of chatter and song that—unusually—didn’t seem to need my participation, and which I had mainly tuned out.
Behind us the house sat indistinctly, the sun dazzling off its many windows, too bright to look at without squinting. Evendon, built sometime in the gloomy fifteenth century and embellished in the ambitious nineteenth by a slightly insane ancestor, was nothing like the other manors in Carmarthenshire, pale and genteel and homogenous. It was gray—all different darknesses of gray—steeply slate roofed with crowstepped gables, pale cornerstones, black and white facings on the eaves, arched windows with white brick edging. It resembled an Escher palace for a witch, baroque and severe, sometimes beautiful, sometimes absurd—overly grand—standing out like a black-and-white hallucination in the tame planes of the garden. Even to us there was something odd about it.
At this early time in the morning Evendon held only two people, both of whom were still asleep. The first was our mother, Alicia. She didn’t like us much. That is not to say that she disliked us; she just didn’t seem to have enough energy to feel one way or the other. The second was our nanny, Miss Black, who genuinely disliked us.
The rest of the house’s inhabitants would arrive as the morning went on: Mrs. Wynne Jones the housekeeper, Mrs. Williams the cook, then the temporary maids and gardeners whose names were never in currency long enough to be remembered. It was in these people that the hurry and noise of the house was contained; they took it home with them in the evening and brought it back in the morning, and so for the moment everything was still, as if no one was in the house at all. Theo and I, on our hill with the silent house on one side and only the end of the rising grass and a strip of distant sea on the other, could have been all alone at the top of the world.
Theo broke off from singing to her collection of insects and called, “Jonathan?”
Her face floated up over the flowers; one hand waving. Her nose was already red from the morning sun.
“Jonathan, do you think bees get hot? With all their fur?”
By the time I realized she was holding up a bee for me to see, it had twisted, fizzing with outrage, and stung her. She stared at me for a moment, her mouth fallen open and her finger pointing as if she were in the middle of a speech. Then she clutched her hand and started to cry.
I tugged Theo back to the house to find Alicia, who had got up and was now sitting in the shade in the drawing room reading a magazine. Her blond hair was almost colorless in the sudden dim, her eyes like raindrops, cool and vague. She looked at us with languid surprise when we ran in, Theo gulping and gasping nearly silently, holding her hand out like something in flames.
“What on earth are you two doing?” Alicia asked.
“Theo got stung by a bee,” I explained. Theo held up her finger and Alicia peered at it.
“Oh dear . . . Miss Black!” she called. “Miss Black! How awful.”
Miss Black failed to appear, but in the kitchen we discovered the newly arrived Mrs. Williams, who was in the process of transferring lasagna from its supermarket packaging into a baking dish. She jumped when she saw us and put her hand over her heart.
“You two are going to kill me one of these days. Not a word to your ma about this now”—she indicated the lasagna—“though I don’t know how people expect me to do everything. Think I’m bloody superwoman or something. I’ve got problems of my own, I have.” She paused and noticed Theo’s distress. “What’s up with you, lovey?”
Theo held her hand out again and Mrs. Williams looked at it with a particular type of satisfaction—one familiar to us from previous household mishaps—as if she had previously warned us to watch out for bees, and was now vindicated.
“That,” she said, “is a bad sting. What we need for a sting like that is lemon juice. Or vinegar. It neutrifies the sting.”
She found some lemon vinaigrette in the fridge and doused the finger with it until Theo stopped gasping and screamed.
“Is that wasps then?” said Mrs. Williams. “I don’t remember what it is for bees.”
Once Theo’s finger was rinsed and plastered and her sobs had subsided, we hung around the kitchen while Mrs. Williams lit a cigarette. She had a lighter in the shape of a matador, which she told us her son Gareth bought her from a holiday. She let us click its feet to make flames come out of the top of its head, and gave us some of her extra-strong mints. Then she sat back and put her feet on a stool and puffed speculatively. Mrs. Williams was about fifty, a short round woman with bright yellow hair, which was frazzled and acrylic-looking. She had an indeterminate number of children and other relatives, whom she would tell us about in the same way as she discussed the characters in soap operas, so that it was impossible to tell which were real and which fictional. “Whatever you say about Gareth, he’s good to his ma,” she said now. “It were those . . . those solicitors that were the problem.”
Theo was sitting at the counter, her face tightly crimped.
“Does your finger still hurt?” I asked.
Theo shook her head, then started crying again. “Why was that bee angry with me?”
“It wasn’t angry with you,” I said, carefully, aware that if I told Theo that she’d frightened the bee she’d be even more upset and I’d have to play by myself.
“Was it angry because it was hot?” Theo asked. “Because of its fur?”
“Yes,” I said. “I suppose so. Do you want to go back outside now?”
Theo cried even harder. “That poor bee,” she sobbed. “Why does it have so much fur?”
I considered telling her that the bee would be dead now anyway after losing its sting, but thought better of it. “Do you want to go back outside and play?” I asked again.
“You two better play inside now, with that sunburn,” Mrs. Williams said to Theo, smoke rising around her face as if she were an ancient oracle. “And you—keep an eye on your sister. Letting her get herself stung!”
This was so unfair that I decided not to answer, but Mrs. Williams had already switched the television on to her favorite show and was soaking up its fractious noises, her head tilted to one side like a canary. “Don’t tell me she’s the murderer,” she exclaimed.
“Come on, Theo. We can play in the library,” I said, helping myself to another mint.
As we left, Mrs. Williams said, “Families ought to look out for each other,” though whether this was intended for me or the television, I really couldn’t say.
The games we played in the library were as dimly lit and esoteric as the library itself, heavy with history, muffled with ritual. We piled books to make leathery castles, pushed at the shelves to find the one that would revolve us into a black and secret corridor, gave new titles and tales to the portraits of our ancestors that hung over us. They had once gazed majestically over the staircase, but in a past act of irreverence, someone (Eve) had demoted them to the library, where there wasn’t quite enough space, and so the walls were crammed with paintings of the dead Bennetts, with the longest-dead beginning at the door and my great-grandparents tailing off into a corner.
Miss Black had shown us the pictures of our great-grandfather George and his wife, Louisa Bennett. She told us that George was a famous archaeologist who had discovered Mayan temples in the rain forests of Honduras and was buried at Westminster Abbey. “Only very important people are buried there,” she said, managing to imply that George’s greatest achievement had been his admittance to London’s most exclusive soil. Similarly, the only thing Miss Black could remember Louisa having done was dying, before she was even thirty. “She was a very ill woman,” she said, with disapproval.
Louisa Bennett looked vaguely guilty in her picture; perhaps for being ill. She was sitting very straight but looked cautious, unsure of her right to canvas. Next to her George Bennett stood with one hand resting on a jeweled skull. He had a block-shaped face with a moustache, and small, square blue eyes. He looked impatient.
Sometimes Mrs. Williams would tell us different stories about our family. There was the story of how George’s father, Sir James Bennett, spent all the family money, drinking and drinking until his parents died of disappointment, before dying himself, drunk, falling off a horse he had been jumping over a fence for a bet. But—she added—the thing about Sir James was his kind heart. He didn’t think he was too good to sit and talk to the locals at the pub, something George would never have done. Then there was the story about Louisa being nothing more than the daughter of someone who made pencils. (“Married her for her money, see.”) She explained to me that George made all the family’s money back and more (“more money than was right”), but the same bad luck got him in the end.
“It was that staircase out there,” Mrs. Williams said, inclining her head in the direction of the marble-floored entrance hall with its twin pillars and a curling staircase that divided in two, like the mouth of a giant long-petrified snake, stone teeth and forked stone tongue. “Now, one day—don’t you go telling your sister this and upsetting her—one day, he must have tripped when he was going down it, and that was it, he went cartwheeling all the way down. There’s no stopping. You only stop when you get to the bottom. And what do you think happened to your great-grandfather then?”
Mrs. Williams paused and lit her cigarette. She knew how to draw a story out when she wanted to.
“He was dead, that’s what,” she said. “Your grandmother found him dead at the bottom of the stairs.”
The most beautiful of the family portraits was separated from the Bennetts in the library, because it was the only image of a living person: Sir James’s granddaughter, George and Louisa Bennett’s daughter, Alicia’s mother, and our grandmother. Eve Anthony.
Her picture hung in the dining room, gazing down at the table with watchful benevolence, as lovely as Snow White with her black hair and pale skin, her eyes tapering to points like arrowheads. Her dress was such a bright, wounded red that even though I had grown up under the picture, I always glanced up at the unexpected color when I went into the room.
Eve owned Evendon, though neither Theo nor I, who had lived here as long as we could remember, had ever met her. She had inherited Evendon after her father died, but she left for America instead and it was more than twenty years before she came back, after her second marriage had ended. She found the house filled with mice and mildew, said Miss Black; almost everything had to be thrown away, the woodworm-mazed floorboards burned, the damp plaster scourged from the walls. All that was left was a floorless, windowless house, like a skeleton. Then Eve waved her wand of money at it and turned it into a palace, filled with chimerical treasure. She decorated the morning room in red silk, with Turkish carpets and two carved elephants given to her in the seventies by an infatuated rajah, the size of Great Danes, gilded with real gold. The chandelier-hung drawing room was cream, filled with bowls of lilies and roses, ivory damask fauteuils perched in gatherings like doves. She lined the disused library with shelves of glassed-over books, maneuvered the long walnut table into the dining room, accompanied by a stately guard of chairs.
Then, only a few years later, Eve left again, called back to America by the siren song of international business, leaving her rooms locked until the day when she would be back. No one seemed to have much faith in this day. Miss Black said it wasn’t likely Eve would want to live in the middle of Wales. (She said “middle of Wales” in the same way as Mrs. Williams said “high flying.” “Too high flying, Mrs. Anthony is, to come back here.”)
What we knew of Eve, living as we did in her ghostly footprint, was all secondhand. We were told that she was a famous tycoon now but had been a politician in America a long time ago. Miss Black showed us television footage of a speech she gave: Eve—she was U.S. Representative Eve Nicholson then—standing on a platform in crackling, slightly off colors, her hair set into doll-like waves. It was her portrait brought to life; we watched entranced. The recording turned her motions stately; talking, then waving from her platform, across the stiffness of time. Her voice preserved in amber, round and smooth. We were not told much about what Eve actually did; it was the standing on the platform that was supposed to be significant. Miss Black told us that Eve led the way for a lot of women after her.
“Are there a lot of women like that now?” I asked.
“It’s not the numbers that are important so much as the . . . principle,” said Miss Black.
Eve had also appeared on television in her most recent incarnation: Eve Anthony, the philanthropist and hotel magnate. The significance of these titles, and of her company, Charis, was lost on me. We saw her on the news cutting a ribbon outside a large building, wearing a white suit. Except for her hair, which was in a cohesive curl to her shoulders, she looked the same as in the earlier film. Her eyes dipped and rose seriously as she said to the camera, “Yes, I have a personal love of restoring the past; of bringing something back, that might otherwise be abandoned.”
Then there were the Eves we saw every day; the misty debutante Eve Bennett framed in the drawing room in her full-skirted cream dress, Eve Nicholson in a pale blue hat and pearls in the morning room, the Eve Anthony Theo found in a magazine, with her blazing smile, standing with another, less beautiful, woman wearing a crown. I couldn’t feel like this person was my grandmother. She reminded me more of Theo’s paper dolls with their cutout wardrobes, endlessly dressed and redressed. She too was multiple, always two-dimensional, always with the same face, the dark irises, the red-and-white mouth. When Theo was younger she regarded Eve as a creature of fairy tale, a sparkling Tooth Fairy (“Can Eve fly?” she asked. “Can she vanish?”), and I wasn’t sure that she believed in Eve even now. But then, the more Eves I saw, the harder it was to believe in her—not because she didn’t seem real—it was that she was too real, more real, than anything else.
Later in the day I judged—correctly—that Mrs. Williams would have forgotten that she told us not to play outside, so we went back out into the hot, still afternoon, moving out of sight of the windows and wandering beyond the long reaches of the gardens into the arches and gullies of the woods, where we unearthed various fascinating relics: a child’s wheelbarrow turned over in the tall ferns and completely covered in rust, an evening glove, a dead crow, a pair of scissors, all nearly vanished in the undergrowth.
The greatest discovery came at the end of the day. Our explorations had brought us to the beginning of a paved path, which led from the grass into what appeared to be impenetrable ferns and trees. We fetched sticks and shears and cleared our way into the woods, kicking at the roots and weeds that laced the regular stones. As we got farther in, the light of the sun faded, breaking through the willows and birch only in a haze flaring around the leaves, becoming cool and distant.
“Where are we going?” Theo asked from behind me.
“We’re just following the path,” I told her. “To see where it goes.”
“Maybe we’ll end up in heaven,” Theo said. (She had heard the Lord’s Prayer recently, and was not to be persuaded that heaven wasn’t a tangible place, something that could easily be found just up the road, near Llaugharne or St. Clears—except with less rain perhaps, and more chocolate.)
After a protracted struggle through the flail and scratch of the briars, tripping on tree roots and drunken paving stones, we broke free from the trees into a clearing at the edge of a large expanse of water. The pool was oddly radiant in the green and silver light, covered in water lilies, underneath which small, murky fish could be seen. Around it there were ruins; the stone paved path visible under the nettles, a marble nymph on a pedestal, leaning morosely to one side, ivy wrapped around her pale neck. It was a strange place; long ago choked off from the gardens, hushed under the pressure of abandonment.
“Does somebody live here?” Theo asked me, touching the nymph’s frozen hair cautiously.
“No,” I said, without confidence.
“This isn’t heaven, is it?”
We tried to walk around to the far side of the pool to see where it ended, but the way was blocked by nettles and brambles. Then we tried and failed to catch the fish, lying on our stomachs and sneaking our hands through the water, until the light turned evening-colored and mosquitoes massed ominously above us. Green-stained and disappointed, we tried to find the original path through the trees back to the house, but as the light faded the scenery had reshaped itself, so that what had once been a clearing was now a willow tree, what had been a willow was a cluster of ferns, where there had been a cluster of ferns was only darkness.
“Are we lost?” Theo asked. I tucked away my own uncertainty and said, “Don’t be stupid. It’s this way.”
I plunged into a corridor between the trees and found myself on a steep, wrong path, Theo following silently, so that all we could hear were the whining sallies of mosquitoes, the crackle of the undergrowth, our own worried breathing. The track sent us upward, blocked our way, twisted us back and around, then finally relented and dropped us down, where we found ourselves back in familiar land, on the old stone paving of the original path.
“I told you we weren’t lost,” I said, pompous with relief. “Here’s the path. Here’s the yellow ivy, and the missing paving stone, and the old oak. Just like I remembered.”
Theo gazed around with admiration. “You are clever, Jonathan.” She jumped from paving stone to paving stone, arms out, ending at the oak with a cry of delight. “Did you write that for us? A secret message?”
She pointed at the tree, where—deeply, scoring through the cracks and gullies of its crocodilian skin—someone had carved a heart. It was old and its lines were gray and vague with lichen, but the letters laid out inside were still readable. MC. AA.
“What does it mean?” Theo said, touching it.
“I didn’t do that,” I said, wondering at it. “It must have been our parents.” I ran my finger around the border of the heart. It occurred to me that this abandoned graffito, something our father probably forgot about almost as soon as he had finished it, was the only real thing we had left of him.
Our father—Michael Caplin—had left the week after Theo was born and only a year after I was born. Miss Black, who had never met him, said that he went to Australia, and then he died in a car accident. Nobody talked about him; he was missing from even the wide-ranging, richly populated gossip of Mrs. Williams. Whatever I asked Alicia about him her answer was always the same; she frowned and said she couldn’t remember, and after a while I stopped asking. There were no photographs of him; no groom standing next to a flowery-haired Alicia, no new dad holding a bottle or nappy with game bafflement. Some kind of tornado had destroyed this early time, flinging out nothing salvageable. After the tornado hit there was no Eve and no father. Eve was back in America, being a business tycoon and philanthropist; our father—MC—had been carried away for good.
When we emerged from the trees, disentangling ourselves from the last of the brambles, the sky had become a dark, deep blue, with a glowing paleness streaking up from the horizon. A few lanterns were lit, the stones of the terrace glowing and shivering in their faulty luminescence. The lawns we passed were a strange green, shivering like a sea blown with the wind off the trees, which carried in it the heavy sweetness of the roses.
I had thought that we might be in trouble, but it was as if some time dilation had occurred in the house, and Alicia and Miss Black were just as we had left them hours before. The arrival of the Sunday newspapers, read and then dropped, had turned the gold parlor at the back of the house into a wasteland of scattered pages like dead birds; the two women themselves were draped, nearly motionless, on the sofas.
“We found the secret lake,” Theo announced.
“A lake?” Alicia said, glancing up. “A lake or a pond?”
“A large pond,” I said.
“Oh, a large pond.” She paused, then frowned, returning her attention to the paper she held, which had collapsed abruptly into her lap. “No . . . I don’t think there’s anything like that here.”
“A small lake, then.”
“I’ve never seen a small lake,” said Alicia.
“I hope you’re not making up stories again,” Miss Black said to us.
Miss Black was young and plump like a gingerbread figure, with her thick plait and little raisin eyes, but if she was gingerbread, she was cold and uncooked; her fullness was not comforting. She never smiled at us, only at Alicia, whom she liked to talk to; discussing Alicia’s friends’ love affairs and marriages in scientific, bored voices, as if they themselves had transcended such things.
Mrs. Williams came in at that moment with the tea as if she had just appeared and had not, in fact, been hovering behind the door eavesdropping, and said, “I know that pool. It’s not safe, that place. That’s where your grandmother Eve fell in years and years ago, when she was little. Wandering about by herself, see. Had to be rescued by a gardener.” She put Miss Black’s tea down so it spilled down the side of the cup. (In her opinion—she had told us—Miss Black should get her own bloody tea.)
“So, anyway,” said Miss Black, “you two should stay away from that pool.” She put on a strict voice for the benefit of Alicia, who had stopped listening and was reading her newspaper again.
“Didn’t you write in the tree, Mama?” Theo asked. “Did you and Daddy” (this “daddy” was a new addition to her vocabulary, and had an experimental feel)—“write in the tree?”
“What on earth are you talking about, Theodora?” This response—while not unusual in its wording—was spoken more sharply and quickly than usual, so that Miss Black looked up with surprise.
“Daddy,” Theo repeated. “His name is in the tree. And your name.”
There was a short pause, then Alicia said, “You aren’t making any sense at all. You two should go and play somewhere else. Quietly.”
Theo was reddening with hurt, so I took her arm and tugged her out of the room. “Come on. There wasn’t much point talking to them about it anyway.”
“What do you think of alligator, Alicia?” Miss Black asked, behind us.
“Vulgar,” said Alicia.
We went to the pool every day after that, though we never managed to catch any of the fish. I liked it there, the odd, foggy personality of the water, the unknown depth of it, the broken-backed trees. Then the initialed tree, like a marker, or the lamppost of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, showing the way to the open door. It seemed suitable—nicely unsettling—that the place had the story of a near-drowning, of Eve’s near-drowning. Like the marble staircase that our great-grandfather George fell down, these places of death and almost-death brought our missing antecedents nearer to us, even if it was just as ghosts, haunting their former home. I didn’t tell Theo this thought, however—it being the kind of thing that upset her.
Toward the end of the summer our uncle Alex came to visit. It was the first time we had seen him in a few years. Alex was Alicia’s older brother and was a doctor of something at a university. I didn’t realize that not all doctors practiced medicine, and when I found out before his visit that he would not be bringing a stethoscope, my disappointment was sour and intense. I was slightly suspicious of the doctorate itself, and felt Alex might be something of a fraud.
Mrs. Williams was of a similar mind. “Sociology,” she said to Mrs. Wynne Jones. “What’s sociology anyway?”
“It’s actually a science,” said Mrs. Wynne Jones. “My Jane is studying it for A-levels.”
“Well, it sounds like a silly sort of science to me,” Mrs. Williams said conclusively. (She had told me and Theo more than once that Mrs. Wynne Jones was a stuck-up cow—and for no reason, because her husband only worked at the petrol station.)
The age difference between Alex and Alicia was only a couple of years, but Alex, with gray staining his hair and frown lines barring his forehead, seemed much older. His eyes were a worn china blue behind his glasses, his skin the off-white color of clay, as if he were a recently unearthed artifact, only just exposed to the light. He greeted me and Theo diffidently, as if unsure of how to handle us; looking between us and Alicia as if she might explain us better; but Alicia only murmured something about the weather being tiresome, and that Alex really needn’t have come all the way down to Wales from Oxford—which I thought was a pretty pointless thing to say, seeing as he was already here.
I felt not quite affection but a sort of gentle pity for Alex, his frangible ceramic body and his awkwardness with us, as if we weren’t children but something more important, more worrying. It was a strange moment, then, when his eyes were reluctantly towed into contact with mine, and I realized that he had been avoiding looking at us not out of awkwardness, but because he felt pity too—and I was confused, because I had no idea what he could pity us for.
After the initial small talk of arrival, Alex and Alicia didn’t seem to have much to say to each other. They just occupied the same rooms, cooling the air with their pale eyes and making occasional comments such as “The rain seems slightly less heavy today,” until night arrived and Theo and I were sent gratefully away.
At the time it used to be one of Theo’s and my games to pretend to go to bed, then sneak out of our rooms later and camp in one of the house’s hiding places; under a spare bed, under the dining table. (Really, it wasn’t much of a game, as Miss Black never noticed we weren’t in bed, but we didn’t know this yet and our camping was delicious with the fear of being found.) That night we had dragged our pillows and bedclothes down to the morning room, and made ourselves a nest behind one of the sofas.
Theo fell asleep first, and I was half asleep myself, when Alex and Alicia walked in and turned the lights on. I contracted, in a panic, but they didn’t see me and sat down at the other side of the room. Alicia was saying something I couldn’t hear, to which Alex said, “She will come back.”
I slowly extended my head out from behind the arm of the sofa to see my mother, refilling her glass from the decanter, not answering.
“What are you going to do when she does? Just keep on pretending nothing happened?”
There was a pause, and then Alicia said, “I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Please don’t use that language.”
“Fine. We don’t have to discuss it. Business as usual. I don’t know how you stand it, that’s all. How you remember what to lie about. Where, so to speak, all the bodies are—”
Alicia put her glass down with a sharp noise, and Alex stopped speaking. There was a while of silence, after which Alicia sighed and picked up the glass again. It was hard to tell from the sigh whether she was angry, or sad, or tired. They were quiet for a long time, then Alex continued more gently, “Remember when we were young, in that big house in California. Remember the maid? Leonie? I’d love to know where she is now. She always used to sing us that song . . . you used to dance to it . . . how did it go?”
Alicia shrugged and sipped her drink. She looked very beautiful in the light suspended from the chandeliers, and the dusk coming in at the window; her eyes lowered so the lashes formed shadows on her cheek. The ice chimed against the side of her glass.
“I’m afraid I can’t remember any of the maids,” she said.
I tried not to fall asleep, in case Alex and Alicia said something to explain what they were talking about, but they didn’t, and I couldn’t help myself. I rested my head on the cushions and my thoughts folded in on themselves like cake mixture, heavy and soft, unformed shapes.
I carried on thinking about Eve, whom I was familiar with only in the past or future tense; the ways everyone spoke about her. The only place she didn’t exist was the aimless present, where we all lived under the sense of her absence, dried out and husked by Evendon’s silence, the feeling that something important was missing. Because it wasn’t just Eve, it was all the lost people of Evendon—our great-grandfather George, in the corridors of the ruined temple with his flashlight; our father, carving his initials carefully into a tree—Eve was the one who had known them, heading a pantheon of characters more vivid than Alicia, who wouldn’t answer anything, and Alex, who looked at me with pity.
I wondered what would happen to Evendon if Eve came back, but sleepiness was obscuring her image, switching it in and out of focus. Eve in her painting like Snow White, holding an apple; Eve standing on her podium like a statue, in the moment before she began to speak; Eve turning and smiling, the professional shimmer of her teeth in the camera’s—in my own—unblinking eye.
Alex went back home the next morning, with an abrupt kiss on the cheek for Alicia, who accepted the contact with her usual mild distaste, and an uncertain ruffle of the head for Theo and me. After the door closed the three of us stood in the hall for a silent moment before Alicia turned and went back up to bed.
“Uncle Alex doesn’t like it here,” Theo said.
“Of course he does.” I was defensive of Evendon. “He wouldn’t visit if he didn’t.”
“But he only comes once a year. And no one else visits us.” Theo spun on the marble with her arms out, hair flying. “We visit other people. Like for birthday parties. But we don’t have our own birthday parties.”
She said all this matter-of-factly, inexperienced in the art of resentment. But I was older and further along; I silently hopscotched the next steps. People didn’t come to Evendon because Alicia didn’t want them to come. Eve never came to Evendon. Therefore, Alicia probably didn’t want Eve at Evendon either.
That afternoon I went to find Alicia, who was having her usual rest in her room. I knew we weren’t meant to disturb her at these times, but I also knew that no one had ever specifically told us this, so I pushed the door a little way open and slid along it and into the room like an eel. The curtains were closed, but they were white, like the walls and the sheets on the bed, so that the room was filled with a dull, pale shade, like clotted light. Alicia was lying on her bed on top of the sheets; her eyes open. She was wearing an oyster-colored dress and a string of pearls, almost the same color as her skin, as if she were herself a pearl in a shell. She rested her head on one hand to avoid disturbing her hair, and turned it to look at me. Her eyes were slow and distant.
“What are you doing in here?” she asked without altering her tone, so it sounded as if she wasn’t actually asking a question.
“When is Eve going to visit us?” I asked.
There was a pause in which Alicia looked at me; the dreamy dissipation of her gaze abruptly clarifying, like dust blown off a glass surface.
“Have you spoken to her? Did she call here?” she demanded.
“No . . .” I was surprised by the change in her; her bare eyes still fixed on me. “I was just wondering.”
Alicia turned her head away so she was looking at the ceiling. “Good,” she said, and said something to herself that I couldn’t hear.
As I hadn’t actually been sent away, and Alicia seemed in an odd, reactive mood, I lingered by the bed. The room itself was nearly empty; no photographs, no pictures, no stray clothes or shoes to indicate that a woman might inhabit this space. The only personal objects in the room aside from the two of us were a carafe, a glass of water by the bed, and a paper packet that I read sideways: Valium, diazepam.
I looked again at Alicia. Usually I would have heard one of her standard three responses now: I can’t remember. I have a headache. I don’t know what you are talking about. But she just lay there, eyes pointing upward.
“You don’t want her back,” I said.
Alicia laughed, a dry, white rustle, and said without looking at me, “I don’t decide anything. It isn’t up to me. She does what she wants to do. She wouldn’t care whether I wanted her here or not.”
Then the spell that had been on her broke—with a blink—and she was herself again. She looked at me as if I had only just arrived.
“I have a headache,” she said, with cold tiredness, and waved me away. “Shut the door quietly after you.”
The Other Half of Me
“What good can the past do the living? What harm?” Growing up in their family’s ancestral home in Wales, Jonathan Anthony and his little sister, Theo, are inseparable. Together they explore the wild acres of Evendon, inventing magical worlds and buttressing each other against the loneliness of life with their alcoholic mother, Alicia, and a shifting cast of gossiping cooks and maids. When a family tragedy brings their glamorous grandmother, Eve, home from America, Jonathan and Theo are initially elated by the attention she lavishes on them. But soon it becomes clear that there is more to the Anthony family history than either Eve or Alicia will acknowledge, trapping Jonathan and Theo in a web of dark secrets that have haunted Evendon for generations.
Written in luminous prose, with richly endearing characters and a profound appreciation for the rustic beauty of the Welsh countryside, The Other Half of Me is a darkly wise coming-of-age novel and a masterful portrait of a family and the burdens of the past.
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Reading Group Guide
Jonathan and Theo are as close as siblings can be, having been raised by their eccentric, powerful, and glamorous grandmother in the shadow of an alcoholic mother and a mysteriously absent father. But their bond is threatened by suspicions about the truth behind their father’s disappearance, as well as the dark pull of hidden secrets. Set in the rustic Welsh countryside, The Other Half of Me is a rich, luminous debut novel that explores the bonds of family and the power the past holds over our present.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Early on in the novel Jonathan describes his relationship with his mother, Alicia, as distant: “she simply didn’t occupy the same emotional space as the rest of us” (p. 38). How would you describe the relationship between Alicia and Jonathan by the end of the novel?
2. The house at Evendon is treated as its own character: “—the happiness of Evendon—was delicate, a b see more