‘The Girl in the Photograph‘ is Isabel Stanton, the daughter of Elizabeth and her husband, Edward. Alice comes across the photograph in the nursery of Fiercombe, a grand home in a Gloucestershire valley. Alice has been sent to Fiercombe from London, where she had embarked upon a love affair with a married man, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy. Shamed by her daughter’s predicament, Alice’s mother sends her away to have her baby, expecting her to return to have the illegitimate child adopted. But Fiercombe begins to divulge its secrets, as the narrative alternates between the lives of Elizabeth and Alice. Is there a devastating link between the past and the present?
Kate Riordan‘s moving novel tackles a taboo topic, in a sensitive yet enquiring way. According to the mental health charity Mind, post-natal depression affects 10-15% of new mothers. It leaves women isolated and fearful. Postpartum psychosis (or puerperal psychosis) is a severe episode of mental illness which begins suddenly in the days following childbirth; it is more likely to occur if a close relative has also experienced it. The author’s descriptions are not evasive, or vague; it seemed to me as if she is well acquainted with the physical and emotional states of pregnancy, the preoccupations and inner lives of mothers-to-be. She also examines the powerlessness of women who came to be diagnosed as insane, and subjected to ineffective and humiliating forms of treatment.
Set against the backdrop of a stately home (which I understand is inspired by a real place, Owlpen in Gloucestershire), this novel has a small but perfectly formed cast of characters, amongst which Fiercombe and Stanton House are as important as people.
There is an unexpected and somewhat macabre revelation about the truth of behind the photo of Isabel, which had me rushing to Google! The ending of the novel, whilst somewhat predictable, was also pleasing, concluding the threads of the story very neatly. I enjoyed this book and am sure it will be a great success, particularly with (dare I say) female book groups, as there are a number of issues which just beg to be aired and shared over a glass of wine and a few nibbles! That is not to trivialise them, more to emphasise that discussion of ‘The Girl in the Photograph’ could be the springboard for some important conversations amongst sufferers (and survivors) of PND.
I read this book as a review copy from Net Galley; it will be published on 15 January 2015.