Unashamedly romantic and readable, Sally Beauman's novels have provoked increasing critical acclaim and consternation. Is she a "serious" writer or not? Her novels have been translated into many languages and enjoy healthy sales, so she's doing very nicely, thank you. But with her last novel, an audacious reworking of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, Beauman put herself firmly in the fray. Far from engendering charges of literary desecration, Rebecca's Tale was well received (one critic suggested her prose surpassed Du Maurier's).
The Landscape of Love, from its unpromisingly slushy title onwards (taken from a Rilke poem), labours under a bookshelf-load of fictional predecessors and allusions: The Go-Between, I Capture the Castle and Ian McEwan's Atonement, as well as a couple of well-worn Brontës, Austen, and a Henry James or two. But, as with Rebecca's Tale, Beauman takes the mythic possibilities offered by these narratives and transforms them into something quite definitely her own.
The story is divided into three (an unlucky number throughout), each part told by a different narrator. The first is 13-year-old Maisie - an unreliable child witness if ever there was one. The story begins with a crumbling medieval abbey; a genteel, eccentric family living in impoverished circumstances; three beautiful sisters (one vain, one bookish, and the last, a little odd); and three ambitious young men (one artist, one doctor and Dan, the handsome gypsy grandson of the family housekeeper). The year is 1967 - the summer of love, which it certainly proves to be for the five bright young things down from Cambridge who spend the holidays in a dope-fuelled haze of painting, swimming, dancing and sex. Until tragedy strikes. A crashing accumulation of portentous hints, starting with a smashed crystal ball, alerts us to the possibility that disaster may be about to befall these young lovelies " on the brink of life ". Spooky.
Wafting around in little more than floaty dresses and a cloud of L'Heure Bleue, the two elder Mortland sisters set out to create havoc among our hot-blooded trio of young men. But Maisie's actions are to have the most devastating impact. Apart from her age, she is an outsider in other ways too. An intense, fanciful child, with an obsession for lists and a habit of communing with the nuns she insists haunt the abbey, she is "different", the family misfit, story teller and spy. "If I didn't spy, I'd be in the dark eternally. I live in a maze of unknowing - Maisie's maze - and I hate it. I need to be informed." She is the Shakespearean fool, the sage, the innocent in a cast of sinners. So - what does Maisie know?
But before we have a chance to find out, the novel changes altogether. It is now the early 90s - sunny Suffolk is replaced by a bleak London winter and Dan, the novel's Heathcliff and another outsider, takes over as narrator. A once hot-shot advertising creative, Dan is down on his luck and high on a cocktail of past success, drugs and booze - an archetype of the boom-and-bust 80s. Time might have moved on, but Dan and the Mortland sisters are trapped together for ever.
Where the voice of Maisie is charmingly convincing, Dan's sardonic, self-pitying rant is less so. The racing narrative is slowed down by nostalgic laments for a lost England and moral decline. The promised classless society, of which Dan is a not-so shining emblem, has failed to materialise. Beauman's Britain is divided into an urban underworld of skate boarders and "hoodies" (who say things like "Yo, man") and the rarified world inhabited by Julia, now a Nigella Lawson-style celebrity cook. There is a war on the horizon but these spoilt, selfish children of the 60s are too preoccupied with their own incestuous battles to notice or care.
Sticking to what she does best, Beauman drags the reader into breathless melodrama. Madness, suicide, illegitimacy, more infidelities than an episode of Footballers' Wives, terminal illness and even murder - and that's not including the medieval nuns. Misery is piled on misery, coincidence careers into coincidence. Beauman leads the characters, and the reader, down an elaborate maze of wrong choices, dead-ends and back tracking. And yet, somehow, we eventually come out the other side. Like Maisie, Beauman is a captivating and artful story teller - capable of making us believe the unbelievable, or at least willing to go along with her. But is she a "serious" writer? Who cares? She is an enjoyable one.
The Guardian, 15.1.05.