The Reconstructionistby Josephine Hart
A remarkable novel of startling psychological power, The Reconstructionist, Josephine Hart's fifth novel, explores the reckless quality of exclusive love, the damage done in families, and the way we build our lives from the fragments of memory, half-truths, compromise, and desire. A brilliant and incisive fiction, this is Josephine Hart at the top of her form.
Jack Harrington is a psychiatrist, dedicated to others, to the examination of their pasts and the reconstruction of their lives. But he has so absorbed himself in the problems of others that he has not quite come to grips with his own-to the detriment of his marriage and his own unexamined past. When Jack is summoned to Ireland for the sale of his family home, however, the burdens of his family's heritage return in full force. Though he has successfully suppressed the anguish of his past, the present threatens to unravel around him. In the house in Ireland terrible truths emerge about what happened years ago in a family tragedy that left indelible marks on those who survived it. The past may have been reconstructed many times, but the appalling truth has not.
Author Biography: Josephine Hart, born in Ireland and living in London, is the author of the bestseller Damage (filmed with Juliette Binoche and Jeremy Irons), and the novels Sin, Oblivion, and The Stillest Day. Her work has been translated into twenty-seven languages.
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Today, Friday, this afternoon to be precise, I am informed by her current husband, Ian, that my first wife, Ellie, has had a heart attack.
"Yes?" My tone is wary. I wonder if he notices.
"Look, Ellie's ill."
"Oh, God, I'm so sorry." It must be serious; otherwise he wouldn't ring me.
"Thanks, Jack. As you can imagine, it's a terrible shock."
"What is it? I mean ... what happened?"
"Heart attack. It's minor, thank God. To tell you the truth, I'm stunned. I mean ... she's normally so healthy. It's such a pity. She was thrilled they'd been invited to do a short European tour of L'Héritage. You know ... the Maupassant adaptation she won that prize for. God, I'm so upset I can't even remember what it was."
"The Prix Jean Vilar?" It's pathetic of me, particularly in these circumstances, to feel a sense of one-upmanship, but I do.
"Yes, that's it! Anyway, they'd just arrived in Paris. It was her first tour abroad since the children were born. She's concentrated more on radio and TV over the last few years. But when she won this prize, we had a little talk about it round-table confab you know the sort of thing. I knew the children would miss her dreadfully, but I explained to them that it was such a great opportunity Mummy couldn'tlet this chance pass."
I resist the urge to analyse any aspect of Ian's version of the sad history of the flight of the mother from her distraught babes.
"She's brilliant, you know," he continues.
Who does he think he's talking to? An acquaintance of Ellie's? I found her, you stupid man ...
"And then, of course, there's the languages. Remember?"
"Yes, Ian, I remember the languages."
I try to communicate my irritation by sighing, but it's wasted on him. Still, it's true. I, too, had been dazzled by "the languages". Fluent French, German, Italian. Smattering of Greek. And, this was the killer line, "adequate Spanish". Wrap that up in a man's trench coat, weird little boots and an out-of-date pony-tail held in a rubber band, add driving artistic ambition and, well, I married her. Who wouldn't?
"I'd really like to get to Paris tonight. And, Jack, the ghastly thing is, Ellie's mother is in America with Richard and you won't believe this, but the nanny's in hospital. Emergency appendicitis. It's half-term and most of our friends have gone away. I know it's a lot to ask, Jack, but can you take them till Rose arrives? She's trying to get a flight from Minneapolis to New York and on to London. Where exactly is Minneapolis, Jack?"
"It's in the Midwest."
"Oh, well ... Jack, do you think you can help out?"
Domestic imperatives and crises at which, Ellie, you were always hopeless. And though you are ill, Ellie, all I can think is, doesn't he have anyone else? Followed by, why the hell is he doing this to me? I know we had a civilized divorce, but this is ridiculous. Anyway, I barely know your children. Are you really very ill, Ellie? Can this be true?
"Jack? Are you still there?"
"Yes, Ian. I'm still here. And yes, of course, I can take them."
"Oh, thanks, thanks. God, that's a relief. Can I drop them off on my way to the airport? Say in just over an hour?"
"Yes, that's fine. I've just got back from the hospital and I've got one late appointment here. But by the time you arrive, I'll be free. I'll ask Kate to come and help."
"Yes, Kate. My sister, Kate. You remember."
"We never met," Ian says, rather coolly.
Which is a bit of a nerve, considering. And I remember that Ellie had never liked Kate. Had rather despised her, in a way.
"OK, Jack. If you think it's a good idea. They're being very good about it, the children. I haven't told them everything, of course. Just that Mummy's sick in Paris. They know it's reasonably serious, otherwise I wouldn't leave them. I don't think they really believe it's happening. You must come across that a lot, Jack. Disbelief. You'll know what to say."
"I'll do my best, Ian."
God, this is madness. The suddenness of all this has made me forget the names of the children. Those children ...
"Margaret's nearly eight now, and Harry's six. It's a while since you've seen them. I'll be around in about an hour and a half. Is that OK?"
"Fine. And Ian, I'm so sorry."
I can't say send my love to Ellie. Or can I? Before I have a chance to say anything ...
"Thanks, Jack. I'll give Ellie your love. And Jack, I can't thank you enough. Right, I'd better pack a few things for them."
"OK. See you."
As I put the phone down, the doorbell rings. I press the entry system and Sir George Bywater pounds up the stairs, strides into the room and, sighing loudly, throws himself into the chair opposite mine. It is a high-backed, revolving, green leather chair. It has been placed at a particular angle to my own, which is, and this is important to me, non-revolving. Sir George Bywater glares at me and begins to speak.
"It was a disaster. A complete, fucking disaster. Sorry. Sorry. I've been trying to control myself since we got back on Sunday night. God, I wish I'd been able to come on Wednesday. But it's been a hellish week. One crucial meeting after another. And then our AGM yesterday. Which was tough, let me tell you. My God, some of these analysts! Twenty-three, twenty-four years of age and they think they know it all! So I couldn't let go. I've had to stay in complete control. Oh, God. Oh, my God. I'm going to cry ... Jesus! Why don't you say something?"
"You say it."
"I need new friends. I've got to get new friends. I need a new life. They look at me and they see her standing beside me. I don't think I can pull it off. I really don't think I can. I can see them thinking of her. Comparing ..."
"What makes you so certain of that?"
"You think I'm wrong?" The note in his voice is hopeful.
"I think it's possible. It's at least possible. They're not thinking of ..."
I glance at his notes, which thankfully he doesn't seem to notice.
"... Alice, but of Trisha."
"Patricia! We've agreed Patricia."
"Yes. I mentioned it to her this weekend. She was a bit taken aback but she agreed. Frankly, it was the only thing that went right the entire weekend."
"Was it important to you to call her Patricia, rather than Trisha? You think it sounds better?"
"Christ, I've embarrassed myself enough in front of you. Yes, I think it sounds better. It's because I'm slightly ashamed of her. There! I've said it."
"Are you sure that's the reason?"
"Yes, I'm sure. I know I'm pathetic. It's pathetic at my age to need the approval of my circle."
"What does Trisha ... Patricia's ... circle, think of you?"
"Her circle? I haven't met her circle. I doubt she has one. She's a single woman of a certain age. She wants to be taken over, to use my terminology. Her allegiances are therefore weaker. She's in transit at the moment. She hasn't arrived. That sounds brutal, I know."
"And you, and your circle, have arrived?"
"I've no illusions. My circle is an interdependent grouping of disparate entities which, over the years, has coalesced into a great marketing force."
"That's quite a description."
"It's from my company report. We went through it this morning. The phrase lodged."
"Why do you think Tri"
"The issue of names may have more to do with your desire to test her, to ask for a sacrifice, than with some kind of latent ..."
"... Snobbery? Maybe you're right. Alice wouldn't have liked her."
"Alice was a ..."
"... A snob?"
"Yes. Yes, she was. Don't get me wrong. She was a lovely woman. But yes, she was a snob. Family, not money. She despised money."
"Of which you've made rather a lot."
"Yes, it's ridiculous. I mean, by American standards I'm a pauper, an absolute pauper. But by English standards I've made a lot of money. In Alice's terms, a vulgar amount of money. When I sold Canning Industries she was mortified. Totally mortified. The papers were full of the price I got for my shareholding. She hated the publicity. She was terrified of ostentation. Her father's an academic, a left-wing hereditary peer. Didn't like me much. Likes me less now. Though he's very old. Do you think the old hate less? The way they say they love less? Anyway, he's got reason to hate me, as you can imagine."
I can indeed. But I rather like Sir George this flailing captain of industry, as he sits opposite me in my uncluttered room. A tired and confused man of a certain age; uncertain of what, if anything, age should determine in his life.
"Though you know," he goes on, "Alice wasn't his favourite child, not even favourite daughter. No, he worshipped Binkie."
"Alice's youngest sister. She's rather marvellous. Lives in South Africa now. In Johannesburg. Amazing she's ended up in the murder capital of the world! He worries about her all the time. She's forty-seven and he's still worrying about her. At the moment, I'm not so much worried about my own children, as bloody furious with them."
"Yes. We talked about it last week."
"Well, it's worse now. I mean, they're not just being difficult. They're being impossible. Totally bloody impossible. That's what I said to my brother, Charles, the other day. We were having our regular monthly lunch at the Savoy. And Charles looked away from me, embarrassed, and started playing with his food like some goddamn model on a diet. Then he put his fork down in this very deliberate way, looked straight at me and said, `They're not being difficult, George. They're not being difficult. They're grieving. They're in mourning.' `My God, Charles,' I said, `you sound like one of those trauma counsellors.' Sorry. I mean, well, they're different. Not as well-trained as you obviously."
In his delightful way, Sir George has more or less dismissed my medical qualification, my time at the Maudsley, not to mention my years in practice. Something about him makes me find this amusing, rather than insulting.
"... Anyway, my children are in their twenties. My eldest son is nearly thirty, for God's sake. I'd understand if they were small, or even teenagers. But thirty? Couldn't they just let me get on with my life? I mean, it's so unfair."
"Have you considered the possibility that your brother Charles, is it? that he's right? That they are in mourning?"
"But it's over a year! They can't still be in mourning. I know what they want. They want me to stay there at a kind of full stop. I'm to be the keeper, the keeper of the flame, as far as their mother is concerned. You know, sometimes I hate them. I really hate them. I'm sorry. I just have to say it. I hate my children. Well, what do you say?"
"It's not uncommon. Particularly in this situation."
"Well, it's a hell of a shock to me. You may be used to this. But, Christ, how can I hate them so much? All right, you told me last time: guilt. It's a bit of a fucking cliché. I'm not guilty. My God, anyone would think I'd murdered my wife. She died from an illness. NOT MY FAULT. That's what I want to scream at them. It's not my fault."
"They know that."
"Well, you wouldn't think it from their behaviour. They've only met Patricia once and it was absolutely ghastly. Now they simply refuse to see her at all. I'm frightened that she'll be put off, you know, by their hostility. I took them out to dinner before the weekend, that disastrous weekend, to Harry's Bar. Do you have any idea of the expense? Four grown-up children and their spouses and partners. What the hell is a partner, may I ask you? I've got partners but I don't want to live with them. I don't want to live with a partner. I want a wife ..."
"... Another wife. That's how your children see it, I would guess."
"Yes, all right. Another wife. I want Patricia. I want her. They're not going to stop me."
"Oh, can't they? Have you ever been patronized by your over-educated, pompous children who believe in every politically correct cliché in the book except when it comes to their father? They're bloody conservative then, I can tell you. Do you know what children want? I'll tell you. They want surrender. They want total fucking surrender. They want unconditional surrender. And they're not magnanimous in victory, either. Oh no."
"But they're parents themselves. You told me last time we talked."
"Well, two of them are. My eldest son, Andrew, has a little boy, Peter, a year old, and Sophie's just had a baby girl, Jessica. Both born after ... after Alice. They haven't a clue about it. They think they're parents because they have babies. It's all just physical now. Kissing them. Feeding them. They haven't a clue. I had a tough time with my father. Much tougher than they've had with me. Tell me, does anyone come to you and complain of the mess their grandparents made of bringing up their parents? I doubt it. No, the poor old parents take the hit for the whole goddamn thing. Oh God, I'm going to cry again. Oh fuck, is it often like this? Crying at the beginning and at the end?"
"In a way, it's always like that. In a way."
"Do you ever think about me when I'm not here?"
"I look at your notes. Tell me a little about the weekend."
"Oh, I suppose it wasn't too terrible. I feel calmer now. I've just been so tense about this weekend. It's been looming over me for months. You see, we well, Alice and I we always went to Tom Aronson's mother's house in Menton, just outside Monte Carlo, for the Grand Prix. I was at school with Tom. He was mad about racing and so was I and it became a kind of tradition, I suppose. Then Adrian Barlow joined us one year and we've been meeting there ever since. Even when Tom spent four years in New York, he always made it back for the Grand Prix. In the beginning we didn't take wives or girlfriends, but that changed when Tom married an American and she insisted, you know the way they do. God, they're stubborn, women! Well, she was right. It worked. The girls went shopping and we went to the circuit.
"A few months ago, somehow, stupidly, I told Patricia about Menton and she kind of looked at me and said nothing for a minute. Which unnerved me. Silence does, you see. So I kind of rushed in and said would you like to come? The minute, I mean, the very minute I said it, I cursed myself. I prayed she'd say no, it's too early. But she just smiled and said, I'd love to. Absolutely love to. Oh God! I had to write an excruciating letter to Tom and his mother, she's pure poison, I can tell you. Anyway, I was trapped. Menton it was, with Patricia.
"Christ, I was nervous. I nearly crashed the car on the drive from Nice. I was constantly looking over at her thinking what the hell will they make of her? What will they think of her after ... Alice? I kept checking her clothes. She was wearing a grey trouser suit and when she took the jacket off, I actually wondered if her cream blouse was Chanel. Alice always told me they make the best silk blouses. That's what you learn in a long marriage. Little gems like that. And Alice loved clothes. It was the one thing about my money which she really enjoyed.
"Then I saw the sandals! She was wearing green, strappy, high-heeled sandals. I hadn't noticed them on the plane. Maybe she changed her shoes while I was collecting the car, I don't know. And I said to her, trying to sound casual, do you think they're suitable? And she said, what? Do I think what's suitable? And I nodded down at the sandals. She didn't get angry or anything. She just gave me that enigmatic smile of hers and said, oh, I think they're perfectly suitable, George. It's a beautiful day in the South of France and they only have a tiny heel. And George, I'm fully aware, because you told me, my dear, that Alice always, always wore Ferragamo pumps during the day, leather or patent. Or even canvas in the summer, if she wanted to be truly casual.
"And you know what ... I suddenly wanted to cry, about Alice and that neat little row of Ferragamo pumps, immaculate little things. I thought what an innocent pleasure it had been for her. And then I thought, no more Ferragamo, Alice. And I wondered, if I married Patricia, what would I see when I looked down at her shoe rail? I got so upset thinking about those little shoes that I almost turned round there and then. But I didn't. Which even I know meant a lot. It meant Patricia could mock, gently I'm not saying she was mean or anything but Patricia could mock Alice and her little shoes, and I'd let her.
"Then I thought, let's be positive here, you know, look at Patricia's good points. That's what I always do in a crisis, think positive. But all that came to mind was, at least she's not twenty-something. Can you imagine the ridicule? Patricia's thirty-four. Oh, she pretends she's not. She pretends she's thirty. Hell, I don't mind. Never trust a woman who tells you her age. If she tells you that, she'll tell you anything. Wilde. Alice told me that one. She loved the theatre, Alice. Used to haul me along whenever she could. Personally, I preferred the opera. At least I could relax there, not have to think, you know. Even have the occasional forty winks. People could, if they saw you, imagine you were simply transported by the music and just had your eyes shut. How did I get on to that?"
"Patricia's age. You were talking about ..."
"Look, Patricia's a real woman. I mean, she looks womanly. Alice didn't look womanly. Even after four children. She was too petite. Not voluptuous, like Patricia. No, Alice was a tiny little thing, like the shoes, which made her look younger. At least from the back. When she turned around, her face was more lined than one would have expected. More sad. I keep asking myself now, was she sad?"
"And what do you think?"
He looks out of the window, then looks back at me and shrugs his shoulders.
"I think ... I think she was sad. I think she was sad ... with me."
"And you? Were you happy with Alice?"
"I don't know. I just don't know. We had four children. There was a ten-year gap between Andrew, our eldest, and Barnaby, the baby. Baby Barnaby we used to call him, to tease him. And you know, that takes up thirty years of your life. If you're going to do it properly. And we wanted, Alice and I, we wanted very much to do it properly. And it was satisfying. It really was. But sometimes I think I was always looking at her over their heads. Just glimpsing her above this row, this gradation, of heads. Like a human bar chart. And mostly when we talked to each other, it was under a cascade of noise. Endless noise. Our marriage felt sort of drenched by them. And then it was over. The whole thing was over. They were gone. And then Alice died. And now, looking back on it, I think she was sad. And I'm frightened a bit, I think. Yes, I'm frightened. Is that the reason I'm here, do you think?
"I suppose you must talk to lots of people who are finding it hard to cope with memory and what's ahead. That's it, I suppose. How do I balance the two? I can't quite get the balance of the thing. So when Paul, you know, my GP, suggested I come to see you, I was insulted at first. But I hadn't been sleeping, not for months. And then the rages. The sudden rages. I'd exploded once or twice at work. Felt ashamed. So I rang him and said OK, I'll do it. Anyway, I'm glad now. I've found it helpful. I even managed to keep control over the weekend. More or less."
"What happened exactly? Were your friends difficult?"
"No, they weren't difficult. Apart from Tom's mother, who's hell to everyone. Tom was particularly welcoming, and his wife, Charlotte, was very kind. I've always liked her. She's sensible. She's a doctor, which impressed the hell out of me when I first met her. Handles Tom's nightmare of a mother very cleverly. Tom's mother's called Mary inappropriately in my opinion though, as Charlotte once said to me, Mary suits her. She thinks she's the Mother of God. Anyway, Mary wanted him to marry someone more glamorous, not so much and this is what Charlotte believes to be the daughter she never had, but to be a kind of co-conspirator in running her son's life. I told you she was clever, Charlotte.
"Adrian's wife is a different kettle of fish. She's glamorous, all right. She's his second wife. I remember having lunch with him at the Savoy, twelve or fourteen years ago I suppose, when he told me he was leaving Linda. He said he was mad for Helen. Mad for her. George, he said, you've no idea. I just have to look at her and I feel I'll die if I don't have her. I must have her. Look, George, he said, I hate men who talk about you know their women. It's one of the reasons we've always been such good friends. We haven't embarrassed each other or humiliated our wives. But George, he said, Helen's, well, I won't say more ... but I went round to her flat the other day and she was wearing this black corset thing and nothing else.
"I wish he hadn't told me that. I couldn't get the image out of my mind. Came back every time I saw her. Anyway, on and on he went. George, he'd say, she's not one of those `Why don't you stroke my hair, or something,' you know, the tell-him-what-you-want school of sexual foreplay. George, you and I both know that when it's good, it's good, you don't need instruction. I just must be in the same room with Helen for the rest of my life. And even poor little Lucy and what I'm doing to her, leaving my six-year-old daughter, I'm lost, George.
"Well, he married Helen. He got her all right. I can't stand her. Well, I can just about take her once a year. They live in Chicago now. He's chairman of PTP Inc. Someone described him as the Don Juan of the boardroom endless take-overs. Still, I suppose the same rules apply. He earns a bloody fortune. He's got share options worth forty million dollars. Forty million! And an annual salary of two million! Can you believe it?"
"It's a lot of money."
"Hmm. Well, the row started when we were at dinner and Helen said she was going to Italy for a few days after the Grand Prix. This news surprised Adrian and things got a bit tense. Anyway, she left the table lame excuse about a headache. And Mary said to Adrian, in this mocking way she has, Italy for a few days! You should have her followed, Adrian. Tom exploded at his mother. How in God's name can you say that to Adrian? Can't you see he's upset? And Adrian said very quietly, I don't need to have her followed, Mary. Helen leaves enough clues all over the house.
"Now you would think Mary'd lay off after that. It was plain the man was in agony. But oh no! Well, my dear Adrian, she said, you knew what you were getting into at the time. You married a ruthless young woman, who did not hesitate for an instant to seduce you away from your wife and small daughter. At which point Patricia, who should have kept her mouth firmly shut, considering she didn't really know anyone there, piped up, I suppose Adrian wasn't in any way responsible for leaving them. It was all Helen's fault, no doubt.
"There was a mortified silence and then Mary said, that's exactly what I'm saying, my dear. Women rule in this arena and all these painfully boring women's libbers Mary's not exactly PC who drone on and on about how badly men behave, should ask themselves, who do men leave women for? Baboons? No, my dear, they leave for another woman, who will pressure the man to come to the meanest deal he can with his previous family, so that there is the maximum available for the family she intends to have. I believe it's called the sisterhood. And 'twas ever thus, my dear young woman. What's your name again? I know it's not Alice ... At which point Patricia got up and left the table."
Excerpted from The Reconstructionist by Josephine Hart. Copyright © 2001 by Josephine Hart. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
Josephine Hart, born in Ireland and living in London, is the author of the bestseller Damage (filmed with Juliette Binoche and Jeremy Irons), and the novels Sin, Oblivion, and The Stillest Day. Her work has been translated into twenty-seven languages.
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As with her seductively dark debut novel, Damage (made into a film starring Juliette Binoche and Jeremy Irons), author Josephine Hart once again explores the paths of human desire and self-deception. A successful London psychiatrist, Jack Harrington, devotes his hours and thoughts to the problems of his patients. Divorced from a wife with whom he had spent time 'in the social purgatory that rowing couples inflict upon one another,' he seems to lead a well ordered mannerly existence sometimes marked by overly protective feelings for his sister, Kate. Jack's tranquility is interrupted when his former wife suffers a heart attack, the family estate in Ireland is put up for sale, and the soon-to-be-married Kate develops an eerie edginess. When Jack and Kate return to the family home, he is forced to confront long buried truths concerning a long ago tragedy and the scars left upon those who witnessed it. With masterly detail and perceptive psychological insights Josephine Hart has penned a mesmerizing contemporary Gothic tale centering on familial relationships, both beneficial and pernicious.