Clouds Among the Stars (by Victoria Clayton)

I have very much liked all the novels I have read by Victoria Clayton, an author recommended to me by a friend with similar tastes in books. So I have gradually acquired more of them, all second-hand so far as they are mostly out of print. Recently I decided to read the next one - in order of writing - and finished it yesterday.

‘Clouds among the Stars’ is narrated by Harriet, aged 22, the middle child in a large and bohemian family. The youngest, Cordelia, is twelve. The first sentence of the novel hooked me instantly: ‘The day my father was arrested for murder began promisingly’. There are then a few pages describing Harriet’s family; she is considered the plain one daughter amongst beauties, the one without dramatic talent in a family of actors. But she considers herself happy, and probably in love. Her boyfriend, known as Dodge, is an anarchist who drags her into all kinds of political demonstrations and is evidently not to be trusted…

This is billed as a social comedy, but unfortunately, the early chapters of the book are rather sordid. Harriet takes part in a demonstration that turns unpleasantly violent, and then learns that her father has been accused of a crime. It appears that he is the only person who could possibly have committed it, and the scene is described in a little too much detail. Meanwhile one of her sisters suffers extreme humiliation and abuse, and there seems to be very casual use of recreational drugs. The first sentence of the novel, I thought, was a self-fulfilling prophecy as it too was very promising… and went downhill from there.

I nearly gave up after about 150 pages, but decided to keep going. I was mildly curious about the outcome of the murder enquiry, although by that stage most of the plot is revolving around the family dealing with a financial crisis. The bizarre mother goes to have elective plastic surgery rather than play any part in the chaotic household; quite a relief to me as a reader, since she spends her time quoting Shakespeare rather than answering questions or doing anything to relate to her children.

I’m glad I decided to persevere, because the novel improves shortly afterwards. Harriet and Cordelia are invited to stay at a stately home, by their childhood friend Rupert and his flamboyantly gay friend Archie. It’s not their house, but that of an elderly peer and his welcoming but downtrodden wife. Harriet, by this stage, is working on a series of articles about haunted houses, and looks forward to investigating their destination, as it boasts several ghosts.

There were still parts of the novel I found disturbingly unpleasant, particularly the elderly Lord Pye’s prediliction for teenage and pre-teen girls, and the way he seems to despise - or ignore - his wife and children. But there are plenty of light-hearted moments too. Harriet as narrator shows herself as having a great deal of common sense combined with an overactive imagination, and terrible self-esteem. But she’s a likeable person; I particularly admired her commitment to giving her young sister as pleasant a Christmas as possible.

The writing is good, as with all this author’s novels, and the pace exactly right to hold my attention. The conversation is mostly believable, and the humour is understated. The ending includes parts that are predictable and parts that are not, and if a tad abrupt, it works well. Overall I didn’t like this book as much as the earlier ones by this author, but I still look forward to reading more of her works.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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