From the opening line of this novel, the scene is set. The importance of the river, the importance of the characters, and the importance of relationships. It also lays the first hint that not all may be as it seems within this family story.
Spilt Milk is the story of sisterhood and motherhood through the generations of a single family. Starting in 1913 with three sisters living an idyllic life in a cottage near a river in rural Suffolk. As the two youngest, Nellie and Vivian, blossom, their innocent existence is blown apart when a stranger, Joe Feriers, arrives in town. Both Nellie and Vivian fall for Joe and the consequences are devastating, creating a secret the sisters will be forced to carry to their graves, overshadowing everything else life presents them.
We follow Vivian and Nellie’s life stories right through into the 1960s. From their unusual start in life, they do go on to marry and create lives of their own, apart from one another – a fact that would have shocked the women at the outset. The author manages to convey wonderfully that not only do the sins of the father (or mother) echo on through time, but that generations of the same family can often inexplicably face similar life events, and it is interesting to see how each generation deals differently with them as time rolls on.
Nellie and Vivian are interesting characters, strong in their own ways, yet equally vulnerable. At some points Nellie takes the lead, finding strength from her passion for the river, always recalling the sense of power it gave her. At others, Vivian is the rock Nellie relies on to keep her sane, more of a mother to her than her birth mother.
The birth of Nellie’s daughter, Bertha (known as Birdie) and her life path, adds yet another layer of secrecy to the sister’s relationship. Birdie blossoms into a superb character in her own right, and her story is equally as captivating, and at times heart breaking, as that of her mother and aunt. The final piece in the family jigsaw here is Framsden, Birdie’s son.
I thought Amanda’s first novel, 22 Britannia Road, was a beautifully written novel and have eagerly awaited her second. And it doesn’t disappoint. There’s even more of a lyrical quality to Amanda’s writing here, which works perfectly, some scenes are so intense they are almost cinematic. The setting is perfectly described and the sense of time, as we move through the war years and onwards, is breathtakingly detailed and accurate. You feel as if you have stepped right into the character’s shoes and are seeing the world just as they knew it – whether it be the grime and danger of war-ravaged London or the open spaces and simple beauty of rural Suffolk. At the same time, while time moves on, you have a sense the author really wants to bring home the message that age is just a number, a date is just a reference, and that nothing really changes. Not really. Nothing of importance, such as love and loss, grief and happiness.
Spilt Milk is a beautiful novel. I was captivated by the story, the characters and the shadows they carried – and I’m sure you will be too.
INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR
Welcome to the Book Club, Amanda, tell us about your new novel, Spilt Milk and the inspirations behind it ...
Spilt Milk is about two sisters who live an isolated life by a river in Suffolk in the early 1900s. In 1913 they meet a travelling man who changes their lives forever. The novel follows their lives and the lives of their families through the main part of the twentieth century up to the late 1960s. The sisters are incredibly different women (as sisters often are) and yet they share a bond which is finally unbreakable despite all they go through.
Spilt Milk is set in a beautiful part of England, why did you decide to set the novel there, and is getting the right location for the story vital to you?
Location is really important to me. And in Spilt Milk the landscape is central to the characters’ lives. I first began thinking about the novel when out walking along a riverbank. I realised the landscape I was looking at probably hadn’t changed much over the years. A woman standing there a hundred years ago would have seen the same river yet she would surely have been a very different person to me. That was the starting point for Spilt Milk. The river in the novel turns out to be central to the character’s lives. It connects them and separates them too. So yes, in this novel, I’d say the locations are really part of the story.
Any plans to move your settings to another area or country?
My next novel is set in Fance where I live and I am really enjoying writing about a place I love.
How did you handle the research of the period?
I tend to read a lot of oral histories. I also adore folk history which says so much about the lives of people and their beliefs. I read widely and study photographs and newspaper archives. I also try and get a sense of the way people spoke and their attitudes, hopes and expectations in life. I suppose I research until I feel I have an kind of instinct for the characters. Then I really concentrate on the story.
Why was the examination of family generations so important to you and were you drawing on any personal experience?
As a child I spent a lot of the school holidays with my great grandmother and my grandmother. Sometimes my mother, when she came to take me home, would point out that we were four generations in one room. I remember feeling amazed by this. I used to look at the four of us and though I knew we belonged together, I also felt their lives were mysterious to me. That they belonged to the past in some way. I am still curious about the closeness and the distance between generations. Then, while I was thinking about writing another novel, my eldest daughter went away to university and I realised she was about to grow up and find her own way in life. It got me thinking again about that movement between women and generations, the paths we take, the similarities and the differences. In that respect, yes, I think Spilt Milk came out of my own interests in family dynamics.
How do you feel about your debut novel, 22 Britannia Road when you look back at now?
I feel really proud of my first novel. It’s not an exaggeration to say it changed my life, allowing me to write full time.
How do you feel about the release of Spilt Milk, does it differ to how you felt when your first novel was released?
I am nervous but excited too! I feel like I am starting out on another journey. I am not a debut novelist any more. That feels different. I have more experience now although I expect I will be on another steep learning curve with the publication of Spilt Milk!
Do you still have the same goals and ambitions as when you started out?
When I started out my goal was to write a novel. Then it moved to wanting to be published. Now I have two published books under my belt and a novella in an anthology entitled Grand Central which will be published in July 2014. Now my ambitions are to get better as a writer – to develop and deepen my craft and to continue writing about aspects of life that fascinate me.
Would you ever consider writing in another genre? Is there a writer you admire so much you would like to try your hand in that genre?
At the moment, I am still interested in writing literary women’s fiction but I think I’d like to and write a detective/mystery novel one day. Kate Atkinson and her detective novels come to mind as an inspiration.
In a Desert Island discs style, if you could only keep three books with you for life, which would they be?
That is a very hard question! I’m going to ask for poetry books. I’d like the collected works of Elizabeth Bishop, the collected works of Raymond Carver and the collected poems of Les Murray.