Susie Boyt. Photo: Charlie Hopkinson
A leading novelist, who has written a much-loved new book about a strained mother-daughter relationship, thanked the Camden School for Girls for helping to inspire her writing.
Camden resident Susie Boyt attended grade six of the school in the late 1980s and said her experiences helped her influence and frame her novel, Loved and missed, which includes fictional teacher characters.
Boyt is a director at the Hampstead Theater, daughter of artist Lucian Freud and great-granddaughter of founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud.
His sensitive and moving book includes a bit of sardonic humor, such as describing the song by Elvis Presley Always in my mind like him “snoring on missed opportunities”. It even managed to bring a smile and a little tear of gratitude to this former reviewer.
The story begins with a moment of truth on a bench in Regent’s Park. A young woman, Eleanor, in her twenties, from Holloway, who leads a rather unsavory life, informs her mother, Ruth, to whom she barely speaks normally, that she is pregnant.
Ruth, a caring middle-aged teacher, can never say or do the right thing when it comes to her daughter Eleanor. Ruth is a big fan of Jane Austen, but describes her place of residence in Finsbury Park as “not very fit”. She is the narrator of the book and is delighted that Eleanor is having a baby girl.
Yet Eleanor, like her boyfriend Ben, is out of work, hangs out with “street people” begging for money, and heavily involved in drinking and drugs.
Ruth obviously adores her daughter, but it’s hard to get a kind word from Eleanor for her mother.
“Once or twice it looked like Eleanor was about to tell me a caustic truth at home, the mouth of the scythe narrowing against me,” Boyt wrote.
We learn that Eleanor’s hostility against her mother began when she was 13. Just a year before, Eleanor was a sweet girl who adored her mother.
Poor Ruth. Between school and prom, she desperately tries to take care of her rebellious daughter. She is reduced to tears when one day her best friend recounts seeing Eleanor looking miserable outside a subway station with the group of young people and a sign asking for money. Ruth’s friend remarks that Eleanor’s hair is “thin and stringy and rather sad in appearance, and you could see the pink of her scalp.” She gives Eleanor £ 10 and a kiss on the forehead.
A few months after the birth of baby Lily, Ruth takes her out of the couple’s hands for a week or two to allow them to better organize their lives. She also raises £ 4,000 for the couple by selling a Sickert painting.
When Ruth returns to Eleanor’s top floor apartment with a view to surrendering Lily, she worries about the mess, old tea bags, rotten food, cigarette butts, a burnt spoon and the fact that one person strange seems to be lying under coats in the bedroom. When it’s time to leave, Ben asks if Ruth is going to pick up Lily. She decides it would be a good idea.
In fact, she keeps Lily much longer and the two form a very close and loving bond.
Men do not surpass themselves in this book although there is a nice vicar. Ruth’s former partner Luke – Eleanor’s father – had moved away a long time ago.
“He valued his privacy so much that he didn’t even like to be asked how he was doing,” Boyt writes.
Eleanor’s boyfriend Ben, father of little Lily, is set to enter rehab following a court case involving checkbook fraud.
Five-year-old Lily is still living with Ruth when Ben’s mother, who had shown little interest in her grandson before, comes into the picture following the fraud case. She phones, “talks loudly” to Ruth, as if she is dealing with a “snipe from a great height”.
Ben’s mother decides the fraud case is “nothing serious”. However, Eleanor must not contact Ben: “She must not phone, visit or write. For this to work, he will have to rebuild his life. Completely change your group of friends.
There is much more pain and anguish to come. But there are also good things in the novel like Lena’s family kebab at Finsbury Park. It’s the perfect place to go after a day of turmoil.
“Lena stood in the doorway, protective, caring. I let her wrap me up. I breathed it in, charred meat, rose water, oregano, and freckled pillow flesh. I felt like I was forgiven.
Boyt specifically names two CSG Sixth Form teachers who put her on the path to writing. “It was a wonderful experience and I was very inspired by the English teachers I had there. Ms. Richards and Ms. Strickland really helped me think better.
“They treated us as equals which allowed everyone to thrive. In a way, the way they taught us to study books made my life richer. They were a great team and I had them in mind with the teachers in the book. “
Boyt has written seven novels since leaving college. His advice to young people starting out as novelists is to try to keep the pressure off.
“There is so much talk now about being results-oriented. But when you start out, you need to approach writing with a play element.
“Keep opening ideas until you need to refine them.”
A good read, a sad and fascinating novel and one that will resonate with a lot.
• Loved and missed. By Susie Boyt, Virago, £ 16.99