Esther Freud’s ninth novel is about mothers, daughters and secrets, telling the story of three generations of women: the men they love and the choices they make. There’s Aoife, in contemporary Cork, who relates to her dying husband Cashel the story of their long marriage; pregnant Rosaleen in 60s London, in love with bohemian sculptor Felix; Kate, an artist 30 years later, with a difficult partner, a small daughter and a desperate desire to know where she has come from.
“Detach with love,” someone advises Kate, late on, which is a necessary counterweight in this novel about attachments. Kate is adopted, and it is her adoption that drives the narrative. Though written in three timelines – each mostly compelling in their own right – this is Kate’s story. But to what extent are our stories ever our own?
Kate’s search for her birth mother brings her and her young daughter, Freya, to a convent in Ireland. They find, first, a bleak little memorial to the lost babies born there. These are the stories of thousands of real women, and Freud quietly does them justice. I Couldn’t Love You More is apparently inspired, too, by Freud’s own family stories – a what-if at the heart of her history. What if her own “much-missed mother ... pregnant and unmarried”, had “asked for help from the wrong people?”
It is tempting to map Freud’s real-life family (tempestuous sculptor Lucian, for example) on to the novel’s complex interplay of characters, but to pin this book down as autobiographical does it a great disservice. I Couldn’t Love You More is a crafted novel, made with great skill and attention, the way Felix makes his sculptures, the way Kate makes her painted trees.
“The choices are stark,” Kate tells us, in a moment of crisis: “Kill myself, or glue pasta on to card.” She chooses pasta, and the thing about Kate (and perhaps Freud too) is that she is always going to choose pasta – making something over taking something away. Kate and Freya glue pasta on to card; they make houses for the three little pigs. In another book, this line might feel glib, but here it feels like the heart of the novel. You can give up, or you can make a story – a house, a home – out of what you have, and tell it to your children. You can do your best to make it good.
Tender, carefully drawn images reverberate through the generational stories: big ones, such as the heavy body of a man, and little ones, such as olives from the deli. Things happen over and over again. You want, instinctively, to say that this is a book of echoes, but nothing could be further from the truth. Things are much more real than echoes. Each generation of women lives wholly, not merely as shadows of the other but completely themselves. The novel is about the patterns of being in this one family; and the patterns of being a woman; and the patterns of being a person, wherever and whenever we are alive. There are brief references (a song, a sentence) to Ceylon and South Africa, as well as Ireland and England; it spans the best part of a century, but these are patterns that go back far further, and farther afield.
“How do we even know we’re not dead?” little Freya asks Kate. This book is how. We know we’re alive because of the stories we tell each other, and the things we make, and the people we love, and that’s all we ever get. Freud knows that, and it is good in this bleak year to be reminded.