Ancestral Truths

Ancestral Truths

by Sara Maitland

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Amid many ponderous passages, moments of lucidity and beautiful descriptions shine like rare gems in Maitland's ( Three Times Table ) latest. Despite the novel's sluggish progress, these strange, usually mystical scenes compel readers toward the conclusion. Still, those who feel that amnesia long ago wore out its welcome as a plot device will treat this tale with understandable skepticism. As the book opens, Clara Kerslake has just returned to her home in Scotland from Zimbabwe, where she went with her egotistical lover David. She has been found there alone on a mountainside, her right hand mangled; incoherent, she tells her rescuers that she has killed David, yet later has no recollection of the murder. After Clara recuperates and obtains a prosthetic hand, she joins her family at a country retreat where her memory is jogged by various symbolic incidents. The narrative's most engaging element is its supernatural premise--that African ancestral spirits spared Clara's life but took David's because of his hubris--but Maitland buries it among lengthy digressions into the vagaries of Clara's adoptive parents and siblings. This story tries too hard to be a family saga; its insights into awkward disabilities and powerful flashbacks to Africa are far more intriguing. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Maitland, whose ``compassionate'' Three Times Table ( LJ 3/15/91) was selected by the Nation and the Village Voice as one of the top novels of 1991, opens her new novel with a hiker's death on Mount Nyangani. The treacherous terrain, the MNK guerrillas, and even the chirikudzi spirits are all blamed for David's tragic end, but some people know that his hiking partner, Clare, had wished he were dead. And why can't Clare remember what happened?

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Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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5.48(w) x 8.21(h) x 0.88(d)

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Ancestral Truths

By Sara Maitland

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1993 Sara Maitland
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8172-3


10th August

At the beginning of the second week in August, Clare found herself, without ever having quite planned it, on King's Cross station waiting for Anni.

After she had been brought back from Zimbabwe, Clare was in the hospital for over three months. It had been warm and safe there. Her family came to see her.

'Goodness,' said one of the nurses, amused and kindly, 'what a huge family.'

'You haven't seen half of them yet,' said Clare and felt again the mixture of pride and embarrassment that the number of her siblings had given her in childhood.

'How many of you are there, then?'

'Seven. Seven children; and Mummy and Daddy of course; but Louise, who came today, is my brother's wife.'

'Oh, I thought perhaps she was a friend of yours.'

Clare realised that it was her family not her friends who visited her.

Her mother came regularly, catching an early train, spending the morning with Clare and then going off to see her own friends, or to visit Felicity or Anni or Louise. Once Clare was out of danger and moved to the orthopaedic ward, Hester set about the business of getting everyone organised. She brought chocolates for the old woman in the next bed; she spent time cheering up a young man at the other end of the ward who had lost both legs in a car crash; she helped the nurses with recalcitrant patients.

'Your Mum's amazing,' the nurses said.

'Yes,' said Clare wearily.

'Oh God!' said Anni loudly, overhearing this on one of her regular flying visits. She brought books which Clare could not find the energy to read and she brought a calm and patient attention, a willingness to listen that frightened Clare. But now they laughed together at their mother's energy. 'Oh God, it's lucky really that she's so moral, otherwise she'd be the last of the great grandes horizontales.'

Almost before Clare had realised that she had lost her hand, Hester had completed her researches into amputations and artificial limbs and arranged the best possible treatment for Clare. Clare was now the lucky possessor of a state-of-the-art myeloelectric prosthesis. She knew Hester had put a great deal of work into acquiring this high-tech gadget for her. She felt guilty about criticising Hester, and she was not able to tell anyone that she loathed it. So now she smiled weakly with Anni at the thought of her mother as a courtesan.

But although Clare had always been closest to Anni, it was Felicity who came to visit most often, usually complaining how hard it was for her to find the time.

'It's OK,' Clare said, when Felicity informed her yet again of the difficulties and labours of fitting Clare into a day already full of Alice and her commitments to the Deaf Association for whom she worked. 'I'm wonderfully petted, you don't have to come.'

'Don't you want me to?' Felicity fidgeted her soft hair back into the velvet band she wore and fretfully rubbed her thin face and sounded almost sulky, unlike herself. Clare tried to feel concern, but the cotton-wool protection of the hospital cut her off from everyone else.

Joseph came late in the evenings and also frantically busy; hastening elsewhere, a couple of times in a dinner jacket, but with magazines, more books and helpful advice about lawyers and insurance companies. Even Tom came once, looking awkward and revoltingly healthy; and Caro, his wife, sent flowers, not bouquets from shops, but bunches and swathes from her own garden delivered, dripping wet and sweet-smelling, by a string of friends who just happened to be passing through London that morning. Caro and Tom had another baby, still tiny and unsuited to hospital visiting, but they sent funny cards, faintly vulgar jokes toned down a little in recognition of her invalid status.

Ceci also sent cards, though not funny ones; nor, Clare noticed, touched by the delicacy, religious ones: floral pictures and some rather lovely photographs of the convent's cloisters and gardens. Clare saw without curiosity both the austerity of the Carmel and the fact that one of the sisters at least had an extremely good camera. The rest of her family always looked at the pictures with interest; it was strange to see the pale fine wooden floors of Ceci's home in pictures when in the fifteen years she had lived there none of them had ever seen the reality, had ever passed through the plain doors into Ceci's enclosure.

Even her mother would pick up Ceci's cards and inspect them, almost greedily. The black-and-white photographs of the plain brick cloister, the sparse cells, and the path down the middle of the garden, gave a physicality to Ceci's life which they could never learn sitting in the cosy visitors' room and talking to Ceci through the wide hatch in the wall.

'Where's Ben?' she asked her mother once the days had settled down into a pattern and she became aware that she had not seen him.

'Oh. Oh, darling, parish life – you know how hard it is for priests to get away,' but even in the swaddled safety of the hospital she could sense an evasion.

'Where's Ben?' she asked Felicity, and Felicity blushed.

'Have you seen Ben?' she asked Joseph.

'Not recently.'

'What's going on?' she asked Anni. 'Where on earth is Ben?'

'Monastic servitude.'


'We're not meant to tell you, it's supposed to upset you; but he got himself in trouble and his bishop resigned him, and packed him off to the monks to repent of his wicked ways.'

'What sort of trouble?'

'Guess. Gay clergy trouble. Unamusing pictures in our favourite Sunday rag.'

'Hasn't Mummy fixed it?'

'Oddly enough, now you mention it, no. But she's been pretty hectic; a couple of days later you fell off your mountain and gave the Sunday tabloids something else to bother with. Mummy's been fixing that. And your hand, of course.'

'Sunday tabloids?'

'What did you expect?' Anni sounded brusque. She had been caught out. She rallied and said teasingly, 'You can hardly be a well-known society photographer and get spectacularly lost, and lose your glamorous financier lover, White Mischief style, and announce to your rescuers that you killed him and expect the noble British press to pay no attention at all.'

She looked down and saw that Clare had been startled out of her passivity.

'Do you really not remember any of this?'

It wasn't that she did not remember, it was that she had not thought. She did not want to think. She closed her eyes and listened for the dark music that lurked waiting beneath the pain.

'Post-traumatic amnesia ...' she muttered. She had heard it said enough times in the darkness. It was a safer thing to say than 'Chirikudzi took him.' Or, 'I'm glad he's gone.'

Anni was baffled.

'If it's any comfort to you, the general view of the family and, it looks increasingly, of the police, is that it's rubbish. The sort of thing anyone might say after being lost up an African mountain for six days.' The heavy irony that had punctuated Anni's adolescent conversations still emerged sometimes in moments of embarrassment.

But Clare was not listening. She drifted in the comfortable peace that the hospital provided, where there were priorities greater than the whole outside world; priorities like what was for lunch and how physiotherapy was.

Physiotherapy. Physiotherapy was the worst part of being in the hospital. It was physically and mentally demanding, at a time when she wanted nothing to be asked of her. It was also the stuff of nightmares, that met and clashed with Clare's own dark dreams and restless sleep. Physiotherapy, learning to use her new hand, forced her to recognise what had happened to her and at the same time made it more difficult to distinguish what was real and what was imagination. The real owner of her electronic prosthesis, her new hand, was a bright young computer wizard. She tried not to think of him as Dr Frankenstein, and of The Hand itself as Frankenstein's monster, yearning, angry and malevolent.

Dr Frankenstein adored his creation and wanted Clare to prove herself worthy of it. He made her work. As she got physically better he made her work harder. The new hand functioned by picking up the electronic impulses from the severed nerves of her lower arm and converting them, via solenoids, into movements that were supposed to replicate the movements of her original hand. But it was not so simple. Actions which had become entirely involuntary, which were patterned into the right hemisphere of her brain, sets of spacial responses, had to be consciously transferred. The Hand's creator and lover thought this challenge ought to be exciting for her, he thought Clare should worship at the shrine he had built for his modern godling. Clare hated him and she hated The Hand.

'How fascinating,' Joseph said one evening, picking The Hand up from the bedside cabinet where she had inadvertently left it. She gave him a lethal stare, and he put it down again almost guiltily.

The one thing she did learn speedily was how to stop anyone ever mentioning her handlessness and its consequence in her presence.

It was only when she had left the hospital and emerged into the world that she had realised how safe she had been in there. Outside, her own daily life felt nightmarish. She was an amputee, a cripple, stared at discreetly and pitied; or completely ignored, invisible in the embarrassment of strangers. At the same time she was also a possible murderess, stared at surreptitiously by those who knew her and were curious about what had happened to David.

She slowed down; exhausted, weakened, she was no longer able to resist the loving force of gravity exerted by her family. Until, at the beginning of the second week in August, she found herself, almost to her own surprise, on King's Cross station waiting for Anni. The tickets for both of them were in her bag, together with the seat reservations.

Clare and Anni did not look like sisters when they met on the station, slightly too early in the morning for either of them. They hardly even looked as though they belonged together. They were both tall, fair women, but they appeared to come from different worlds. Clare saw Anni as she came up the steps from the tube, and felt immediately both aggressive and secretive about the fact that she had come in a taxi. Until she saw her older sister, Clare had not given a moment's thought to how she was dressed, but instantly she felt artificial: made-up, overdone, self-conscious. She knew that Anni had genuinely given the matter no thought at all. Anni was wearing her usual jeans and T-shirt; she had a slightly battered backpack and a plastic carrier bag. Clare noticed for the first time that Anni's hair was going grey; not elegantly silver, but faded, dusty looking, as though someone had emptied an ashtray over her head. Practically the first thing that Clare had done on leaving the hospital was to go to her hairdresser, an old and trusted friend, and have her highlights put back in; they had shaved her head after the accident and the new hair was still fluffy and babyish, but it was fair still, and deftly and discreetly blonded and immaculately cut. Despite the grey hair and the scrubbed, slightly lined face Anni looked younger than Clare, with a sort of cheerful innocence, somehow childlike, not at all appropriate to a schoolteacher; to the head of the science department of a large girls' comprehensive. Clare felt a pang, and did not know whether it was envy or pity. Anni never seemed to bother with the things that haunted Clare.

It turned out, however, that she was no more oblivious than Clare was.

'Dear God,' she exclaimed as Clare and she located each other and celebrated the moment with a customary hug, 'that is the most outrageously beautiful jacket I have ever seen. Whatever is it made of?'

Clare felt an immediate cringing guilt, compounded by knowing that Anni's admiration had almost certainly been sincere and innocent.

'It's not new, you know,' she said almost apologetically and then, brazening it out, 'Distressed silk.'

'Distressed? If I was that silk, distress would be the last of my emotions. Distressed Louise, I should think.'

There was a joyful cosiness in the bitchery. Joseph's wife would indeed be envious; her envy would join Anni and Clare together regardless of the fact that Clare felt guilty paying more than a month's worth of Anni's salary for a jacket, and Anni, had she known how much the jacket had cost, would have been appalled.

They looked at each other, grinning almost shyly. Since Clare had left the hospital she had not seen so much of Anni; there was a gap, one they were both happy to accept. The hospital had shifted the balance between them too much.

Once they had been so close, so tightly bound together that it had annoyed other people; now they had to forge bonds of intimacy by disparaging their sister-in-law, and laughing at their relatives.

'I have the tickets and Mummy, I need hardly tell you,' Clare said, 'has reserved our seats.'

'I'm surprised she didn't ask the guard to keep an eye on us.'

'We don't know that she hasn't yet.'

They both grinned again. Hester had, as always, organised everything impeccably. She had rung Clare ten days before to reassure her that the tickets were in the post and would arrive in good time.

'Mummy, I'm still perfectly capable of buying my own ticket.' On the phone she had allowed some of her exasperation and tiredness to spill out.

'I know you are, darling, but is Anni?'


'I'm sorry. Am I interfering?'

She wanted to say 'Yes' again, but did not.

'It was meant to be a present, that's all. I know you're only coming up because I want it, so why should you pay for it?'

Why indeed? 'Thank you,' she said, and could hear her own infantile sulkiness. 'What shall I bring?'

'Fresh veg would be nice. As usual. No, better if Tom does that. Fresh veg from central London is a bit silly isn't it?'


She bought a box of avocado pears, fresh basil and oregano, and two pineapples. More for herself than for anyone else she also bought several packets of coffee: Lavazzo in shiny hard packets, red and silver. They were easy to pack, necessary to her comfort – her mother had never seemed able to understand about coffee, happy with powdered instant or a bitter, over-boiled percolated brew.

Anni tossed her rucksack on to the trolley which already held Clare's suitcase; she turned the trolley deftly and together they walked down the platform looking at the carriage letters. So they had walked along railway platforms in their teens again and again, neat then in school uniforms, or almost as neat in their family uniform of jeans and Barbours, and more alike than they now were. Sometimes, especially when Felicity and Cecilia were there too, the four of them, all fair, all so nearly the same age, all carrying themselves with that innocent arrogance that they had inherited from their mother, had attracted considerable attention:

'Are you all sisters?' people would ask, smiling to cover their curiosity.

'Yes,' they would say, giggling.

There were only four months between Anni and Clare; barely two years between the four of them. Sometimes curiosity would win over discretion.

'Which of you are twins?'


Gleefully they would watch their interrogator try to work it out. On some lucky occasions the questioner would become embarrassed. It was a rigid point of honour between them never to explain. Felicity and Cecilia might have allowed good manners or even real kindliness to overrule this code, but Anni and Clare were adamant.

Now they would not even have been taken for sisters: Clare so glamorous, Felicity so neat, Anni so dowdy, and Ceci, her blonde curls shaved off and half her face invisible behind the wimple; and yet, after a quarter of a century, Clare and Anni could walk easily along the platform at King's Cross, still buoyed up by the memory of their unusual relationship, able to ignore the differences and difficulties that had come between them. They found their seats and Anni said, 'Bags I face the engine.'

Clare replied, 'It's not fair, you always face the way you want.'

'That's because I'm the oldest. You could have bagged it first.'

'I don't care; the train turns round at Edinburgh and I won't swap.'

Anni grinned, 'You're meant to say "yah boo sucks".'

'Do they still say that? Kids I mean.'

'Lord no. They say "Piss off" ... if you're lucky.'

Despite the goodwill it was a ten-hour journey from London to Inverness, and ten hours is a long time to sit in a public place with someone who used to share your bedroom, your dreams and your secrets, and with whom you have not had a sustained conversation since you lost your hand and your lover halfway up a mountain in Africa.

It was more than the events themselves: the accident had forced changes on them, on their established feelings and their well-tested ways of dealing with each other. Now compassion and pity for Clare's losses tempered Anni's fierce teasing; now defeat and fear modified Clare's compassion and pity. Now Hester's instructions to sensitivity and carefulness, which both of them, knowing their mother, knew would have been issued, made Anni the older sister again, a rôle she had never relished and had deliberately abandoned. Clare felt that although her jacket was indeed beautiful and Anni had admired it with simple sincerity, it was only an outer layer, and inside she was ugly. She had no right hand and no lover, and could not say for certain how she came to lose either.


Excerpted from Ancestral Truths by Sara Maitland. Copyright © 1993 Sara Maitland. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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