The Other Half of Me

A Novel

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About The Book

For fans of Atonement and Brideshead Revisited, a gorgeously written, darkly wise coming-of-age novel about the pull of the past and the destructive power of the stories we tell ourselves.

“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.

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

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?”

“What happened?”

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?”

“No.”

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?”

“What?”

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.”

“Bullshit.”

“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.”

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Other Half of Me includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Morgan McCarthy. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Introduction

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 balance of things that were said and not said” (p. 53). In your opinion, what does the house represent? Conversely, each character has a unique relationship with the house. What do you think Evendon meant to Eve? to Theo? to Jonathan?
 
3. Eve thinks that she and Jonathan are the most alike in the family: “I saw myself in you—the way you had to learn self sufficiency so early. And since then I’ve often marveled at how alike we are” (p. 187). Do you agree? Are there any other similarities between Eve and Theo? Can you think of any other characters that act as mirrors or foils to each other? Consider Maria, Theo, and Antonia in your response.
 
4. After telling Jonathan about what eventually happened to his father, Eve advises: “I’ve never seen the point of brooding over one’s ‘roots.’ It’s really just a refusal to let go of what is gone. What good can the past do the living?” (p. 188). Do you agree with Eve? How does this question foreshadow what happens later in the novel? How does this question specifically impact Jonathan’s character?
 
5. At one point Jonathan compares his situation to a game of scissors, paper, stone: “Unless there was one for each of us; Theo the paper, Eve the scissors. I contemplated stone—the insensibility of it—solid, silent, achieving only the fact of its own stoniness. Jonathan the stone” (p. 223). Do you think Jonathan assigned the correct item to each character? Why or why not?
 
6. A magazine article refers to the Bennett family as cursed (p. 243). Do you think this family was indeed cursed? Or do you think that members of this family created their own problems?
 
7. “When I think of successful architecture I think of the row of small houses facing Llansteffan beach, vividly pastel, the ice-cream colors of the coastal sky. They are the idea of living by the sea, the small hope that comes from being at the borders of the land, and at the beginning of something else” (p. 308). Discuss the relationship between Jonathan and his career as an architect. Why do you think he is drawn to this profession? How does his idea of “successful architecture” change?
 
8. Jonathan has a very cold idea of love in the beginning of the story, saying, “I didn’t want love either, I didn’t want to be weighted with someone else’s needs” (p. 166). However, in his letter to Maria, he writes: “I understand love better now and it’s still yours—it always will be—if you ever want it” (p. 300). What experiences in the story changed his idea of love? Consider the evolution of Maria and Jonathan’s relationship over the course of the novel in your response.
 
9. Were you surprised to find that Jonathan and Maria are together in the epilogue? Discuss Eve’s relationship with the other women in this novel. Does she have any close female friends? Why do you think she behaves the way she does toward other women?
 
10. What do you think would have happened to these characters if Eve had told the truth about her first husband’s death instead of covering it up? What do you think would have happened to Jonathan and Theo if Michael had been granted custody of the children after the divorce?
 
11. Eve describes to Jonathan how she gained her independence following George and Freddie’s funerals. Do you think that any of the characters in Evendon were free while Eve was alive? Which of the characters do you think eventually found freedom?
 
12. From a young age Theo is terrified of the pond in the garden where her grandmother almost drowned. She often refers to a ghost lingering around the pond. How does Theo’s fear of the pond influence her eventual suicide? How do her feelings about the pond change?
 
13. Jonathan asks an interesting question: “Do I blame Eve for Theo’s death? I don’t know” (p. 311). What do you think? Do you blame Eve for Theo’s suicide? Do you think that there is someone else to blame? If so, who?
 
14. Mrs. North picks the following quote from Shakespeare for Eve’s epitaph: “Truth and Beauty buried be” (p. 265). Do you think this epitaph is fitting for Eve? Why or why not? Do you think there is some significance to the fact that Theo “had no epitaph; no last word”?
 
15. The title of this novel, The Other Half of Me,, references the poem Theo wrote about Jonathan: “I’ve lost my brother, he’s over the sea, / Over where I want to be. / He’s the other half of me. / Tree Bee Happily?” (p. 282). Discuss the scene in which Jonathan discovers this piece of paper in her room. Is there anything that Jonathan learns in this scene that you think surprises him? What does Jonathan ultimately lose?
 
16. The Other Half of Me, is predominantly told from Jonathan’s perspective. How do you think this story would have differed if Theo had been the narrator?
 
17. Are there any recurring themes that stood out to you as you were reading The Other Half of Me,? Consider the ruins of the pool and the prevalence of water, family dynamics, class, and the societal roles of women and men in your response.
 
18. The Other Half of Me, depicts different paths between secrets and freedom. Do you think it is a hopeful story? Or a cautionary tale of what can happen when a family keeps too many secrets?

Enhance Your Book Club

    
 
1. There are beautiful descriptions of the house and grounds at Evendon. Make a sketch of the house and gardens and share with your book club what details of the house stood out in your memory.
 
2. “It was in the drawers by Theo’s bed that her treasure was kept” (p. 281). Theo’s “treasures” include an old pencil case, postcards, an empty blush compact, pictures, a silver necklace, beer mats, a flattened origami swan, letters, and a small statue of Ganesha. Talk about what the treasured objects in Theo’s drawer tell us about what matters most to her. Have each member in your book club bring a small box or container filled with his or her own personal treasures to your meeting. Discuss the importance of each item. What memories does each object elicit? What do the objects say about you as a person?
 
3. “We saw the familiar hills of Carmarthenshire through a lens of water, thinner, wiped of color”(p. 27). Carmarthen is considered to be the oldest town in Wales and is a primary setting of The Other Half of Me,. Visit www.carmarthen.info to digitally “walk” the streets of Carmarthen and to find out more about the historic town. Discuss with your group how seeing photos of the novel’s setting impacted your reading experience. Does it look like how you imagined?   
 

A Conversation with Morgan McCarthy 

Quotes from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens, Ford Madox Ford, and Sir Walter Raleigh begin each section of The Other Half of Me,. Did you go through a lot of different quotes before selecting the four you used? How did you come to select the quotes? Do you look to any of these authors as inspiration for your own writing?  

The quotations were gathered while I was studying English literature at university. This was a time when I was putting together my first ideas for a novel, at the same time as reading more widely than I ever had previously. Every now and again a quotation I read really chimed with my own ideas, so I’d write it down and save it. The three novelists mentioned above are strong influences for me: Great Expectations, The Good Soldier, and The Great Gatsby all feature in one way or another a dislocation between the outward beauty and privilege of the lead characters’ lives and dreams, and their darker underlying problems. By the end of each novel the flawed central characters have soundly failed in their efforts to avoid unpalatable truths.

The Other Half of Me, is a dark novel that tells of a famous family dealing with generations of lies, deceit, and cover-ups. What inspired you to write this story?  

The novel has changed a lot since my first conception of it, but a few elements have remained the same in every draft, ever since I first vaguely put together an idea of what I wanted to write. I’ve always wanted to carry out my own exploration of the things— money, beauty, power, status—that traditionally draw characters in and influence them for the wrong reasons. Also, the differing ways in which people are affected by a difficult childhood is very interesting to me: I wanted to show two people pushed in opposite directions by their own ways of dealing with past events. Finally, I wanted to write about a strong, manipulative, and influential character whose charisma is used to control those around her. I found these three elements fitted together so well in The Other Half of Me, that everything else almost arranged itself around them.

Both Theo and Eve are strong, powerful female characters. Did you pull from anyone—either fictional or from your own life—for inspiration for their characters?  

Fortunately I don’t know anybody who “is” Eve. Theo has been partly influenced by my own relationship with my sister and our own nonsense jokes. Unfortunately, in Theo’s case, Jonathan doesn’t play along with her, and her efforts to engage him usually fall flat. The development of Theo was also influenced by my memories of my uncle, who suffered from schizophrenia. All my characters have something in common with me—even if it’s only something small. Without that element of common ground I’m not sure I’d be able to inhabit them very well.

You describe the house at Evendon in such vivid detail. Did you have a specific house in mind when you were writing this novel, or was it a fictitious house that exists only in your imagination?  

The house internally is a composite of places I’ve seen or imagined. Its exterior is inspired by a picture I saw and loved in a book about historic houses when I was a teenager. Unfortunately I can’t remember what the book was or the name of the house! I’d like to see it again, particularly as I’m sure my memory has altered it over time.

Jonathan is a complex character—he is charming, difficult, removed, and sympathetic all at the same time. Why did you choose to tell the story from his perspective? Do you personally like Jonathan?  

There are several reasons I placed Jonathan at the center. One reason was that he is the character farthest from me—both in terms of gender and outlook—and he could also be in danger of becoming the character who is farthest from the reader. Seen from an outside perspective, he could seem simply cold and pigheaded. I didn’t want him to suffer this fate. And yes, I do like Jonathan, even when he is at his most frustrating!

There are two heartbreaking deaths in this novel that leave Jonathan forever changed. Did you always know these characters would die? Did you have any alternate scenarios or endings?  

The deaths were decided before I began the novel—being necessary elements of the story—and I’m afraid there were no other options for these characters. They were doomed from the start.

Did you do any research on mental illness or schizophrenia in order to come up with pieces of Theo’s character?  

As I said above, I have a little experience of the illness, and I filled in the blanks with research. Having said that, it was important to me that Theo not be a stereotypical sufferer of the illness, which takes differing courses depending on the person affected.

Tell us about your relationship with Llansteffan and Carmarthen. Why did you choose this area of Wales as the main setting of the novel?  

Evendon, in my conception of it, is located somewhere between the town of Carmarthen and the village of Llansteffan. My aunt lives in this area and I have memories of several happy summers spent visiting her. The area is very rural and beautiful, and there is also the interesting divide between the English and Welsh in evidence, which I wanted to include in a novel as soon as I saw it.

At one time you worked in a small independent bookstore. How do you think that experience has shaped you as a writer and a reader?  

I loved reading long before I worked at the bookshop, so I wouldn’t say that it gave me any more impetus to read. I’d like to say I found it inspiring as a writer, but at the time I was a teenager, and I spent most of my shifts gossiping with the other girls who worked there and eating biscuits. Later, when I worked at a chain bookseller, the store was so busy that there was no time for chatting to customers about books or discovering new fiction. My progress as a writer actually happened when I was working a quiet shift at a supermarket during university, and later, at a department store, both of which allowed me plenty of time to think about my planned novel and write my ideas down on till roll. I used to come home with my pockets full of these ideas.

Was it difficult to leave behind the characters of Jonathan and Maria? Will they appear again in another novel? What do you plan on working on next?  

It wasn’t hard to leave the characters behind as I felt like they were doing fine without me. Plus, by the time I finished The Other Half of Me, I’d already started a second novel, and I was very involved with the new project. I’m finishing that novel now. I see it as a companion piece to The Other Half of Me, with no characters in common, but similarities of theme. For me it addresses the other side of several issues raised in TOHOM. I suppose it’s the other half of The Other Half of Me.

About The Author

Photograph by Dean Kaden Photography

Morgan McCarthy was born in Berkshire, UK, where she still lives. She has worked in a supermarket, a small independent bookstore, and, most recently, as a media analyst.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (September 2012)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451668230

Raves and Reviews

"McCarthy’s alluring, stunning debut will box her readers into an impossible corner—either to race through to see what happens next or to slow down and savor language that is mesmerizing in its evocative powers."

– Library Journal, starred review

"A beautiful, brooding novel of siblings growing up half-wild in a grand Welsh manor house… Darkly lush, filled with an irresistibly sad glamour, this is a memorable debut."

– Kirkus

“Moving andinvolving…The past is front andcenter in British writer McCarthy’s accomplished first novel… Next stop: PBS?”

– Booklist

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