The Battle for Christabel by Margaret Forster

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The Battle for Christabel by Margaret Forster

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A superb story about what happens when a child is taken into care, with characters you can hate and warm to. It's a book to buy and keep - you're sure to want to reread it.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: October 2004
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 0099455633

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People will do dreadful things to a child and delude themselves that they are doing it for the benefit of the child.

Rowena wanted a baby, but she didn't want to have a lasting relationship with the father of the child. She wanted the child of a black man and so Christabel, a mixed-race child, was born. Rowena is immature and disorganised and it comes as no surprise to those who knew her that she has made no provision for Christabel's care when she's killed in a climbing accident when the child is only five.

The grandmother is elderly, frail and lives in sheltered accommodation. She's unable and unwilling to take responsibility for the child. Rowena's sister is a widow, not the motherly type and is a travelling musician. Her only child is now grown-up and she doesn't feel able to undertake Christabel's care. Isobel, Rowena's friend is initially unwilling to adopt the child but is persuaded by her lover that they should apply to do so. The Battle for Christabel is the story, not just of Christabel, but of all those involved with her from the time of her mother's death until she finds her permanent home.

It's a gripping story. Although we know from the start who doesn't adopt Christabel we don't know the outcome until late in the book - and it's a real page-turner. Once those close to Christabel realise that none of them can take on her long-term care she comes under the care of the local authority. Her family and friends don't stop caring for her, but they don't fully appreciate how little say they will have about her day-to-day care or her long-term prospects.

The most fascinating portrait for me was that of the bureaucratic machine which takes over Christabel's care - the social workers, adoption panels and the various courts of law. It operates with seeming inhumanity but it's surprisingly easy to antagonise the individual people who work within the system. Christabel's grandmother is very class-conscious and has a bull-in-a-china-shop approach to the system. The collisions, the outcomes are inevitable from the start. It's also quite shocking to realise that the system is designed to protect the child, but can still leave a child with a totally unsuitable foster parent for a ridiculous length of time. It's also frightening to realise the financial and emotional cost of trying to persuade the system that it is wrong.

Characterisation is superb. The story is narrated by Isobel who was Rowena's sometimes-reluctant friend for most of her life. She's hard and unfeeling, but it's difficult not to warm to her as Christabel touches her heart. It's appalling to watch the accommodations that she's prepared to make in the hope, not expectation, of being able to make a permanent home for the girl.

At opposite ends of the scale the dreadful foster mother and the snobbish grandmother are well portrayed. Both are extremes of their type but Forster draws rounded people and there's never any possibility of their descending into caricature. The men in the story are more shadowy, but I've found this in other books by Forster. It's a minor quibble as the main characters are all female.

As Christabel's father was black and she is obviously of mixed race the authorities are keen to ensure that this is reflected in the family with whom she will find her permanent home, despite the fact that she had always lived in a white family before her mother's death. To what extent is this pedantry, or could it be that it would be better for Christabel?

There are no scenes of overt sexuality or of violence. Even the description of Rowena's fall onto a sharp rock is handled sensitively. I'd regard this as a book for any adult although it might appeal more to women than to men. It might also serve as a useful reminder to every parent that they should make arrangements as to who should look after their children in the event of a tragic accident.

The style of writing is confident and flowing, even masterly. I don't think there was a superfluous word in the book. I've recently returned to Forster after a gap of many years and I'm steadily catching up on what I've missed.

If you think you would enjoy this book you might also appreciate our review of Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

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Buy The Battle for Christabel by Margaret Forster at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Battle for Christabel by Margaret Forster at


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