Private Papers by Margaret Forster

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Private Papers by Margaret Forster

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A well-crafted novel about four generations of one family from World War II to the Falklands War told from the perspective of a mother and her daughter. It's worth buying as it's a book that will stand rereading.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: October 2004
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 0099455625

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Margaret Forster deserves to be better known and more widely read. Many years ago I read Lady's Maid and enjoyed it, but I didn't go looking for more of her work. Private Papers was a gift, along with two more of her books and I'm delighted by how much I've enjoyed it.

Penelope was abandoned as a baby and spent her childhood in an orphanage. Her one ambition in life was to have a family. In the thirties she married a doctor and they had two children and adopted another, before Oliver voluntarily joined the army. Penelope is pregnant with their fourth child when Oliver is "missing in action, presumed dead" and then "missing in action, declared dead". She's left to bring up four children on her own, but never loses her belief that the family unit will protect her and her children. Distressed by the seeming inability of her children to appreciate their situation - or the fact that it's their own choices which place them in their present circumstances - she begins to write a history of the family.

Her eldest daughter, Rosemary, comes across these "private papers" and is incensed by the way that her mother distorts the truth of what has happened. She tells her side of the story and we have history over a period of half a century told from the perspective of both mother and daughter. The narrative moves through a period of substantial change - from World War II through to and beyond the Falklands War. We see the family change along with society, from the turbulence of post-war England through to the Thatcherite eighties. It's an excellent story and a social commentary.

There's a sad inevitability about the story. Penelope tries so hard, is so selfless in what she does for the family, but in so many ways it's that selflessness which brings about the tragedies her four children suffer. The two narrators, Penelope and Rosemary are both strong women and it's the contrast in their viewpoints which makes the book so compelling. Penelope clings to the pre-war conventions but Rosemary delights in overturning them. Both views are valid and strongly held. In essence the book is an analysis of family life - the stresses and strains and how cracks are papered over.

When a story has two narrators it's unusual for them both to be strong, dominant characters - or, if they are, for the device to succeed. It succeeds here though. Penelope has determination - determination that no matter what, the family unit must be protected and upheld. Rosemary has affection for the family members - even love for certain people - but no real concern about the family as a unit. The two women are generally in broad agreement about the facts of any situation but their interpretations differ wildly. Sometimes I wondered which narrator was telling the truth. Sometimes I wondered if there was a truth, an absolute truth, in any family situation.

The characterisation is excellent and totally believable. They all have depth and the flaws which make people human. Although the story is told by two people there are five primary characters. Rosemary is Penelope's eldest child. The second child is Celia - the character with whom I felt most sympathy - always on the sidelines of family life, trying to be a part of it but never quite succeeding, never quite seeming to be fulfilled and never achieving what her mother expects of her. Jess, the adopted daughter is ultimately destroyed by family life and the only one who attempts to follow in her mother's footsteps is Emily - with disastrous consequences. The story does concentrate on the women in the family and men are generally peripheral characters. If I've a minor quibble about the book it's that the men are rather too shadowy.

The style of writing is superb. It's confident, easy to read and flows quickly, despite the regular changes of narrator. My interest in the book never flagged and I was sorry when I reached the end. It gave me a great deal of enjoyment over a couple of evenings.

If you enjoy this type of book you might also enjoy Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which covers similar themes over roughly the same timescale. Private Papers is easier to get into (I was hooked within the first few pages) but they are both excellent reads.

Buy Private Papers by Margaret Forster at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Private Papers by Margaret Forster at

Buy Private Papers by Margaret Forster at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Private Papers by Margaret Forster at


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