The Home Child by Liz Berry; Blood Feather by Patrick McGuinness; The Fourth Sister by Laura Scott - review by Stephen Knight

Stephen Knight

All That You Can’t Leave Behind

The Home Child

By

Chatto & Windus 128pp £14.99

Blood Feather

By

Jonathan Cape 80pp £12

The Fourth Sister

By

Carcanet 72pp £11.99
 

Settling on cobblestones, lying chest-high in a field or ‘slushing to silver’, snow permeates The Home Child, Liz Berry’s fictionalised account of the youth of her orphaned great-aunt Eliza Showell, one of many thousands of poor British children sent to Canada between 1860 and 1960 to work as indentured farm labourers and domestic servants. Evoking not only Nova Scotia but also the loveless world to which Eliza was banished, this chilly motif is counterbalanced by Berry’s tender writing, most touchingly when, in one of several prose passages, she imagines her ancestor as a figure in a snow globe at the end of a day of chores, ‘curled on her side on her narrow cot, eyes open, mouth ajar, watching her breath freeze in the air’.

Into this all but monochrome world – where a foal is ‘black as a seam of coal’ and Eliza’s Black Country dialect is filthy as soot – comes another home child, Daniel, with whom Eliza has a romance. Renamed Lizzie by the farmer and his ailing wife, she has her name restored by Daniel: ‘he says it, says it, says it so soft.’ The language warms with his arrival and flashes of colour light the gloom, most strikingly through Daniel’s gift of a scarlet ribbon. It’s a moment reminiscent not only of those episodes of Edgar Reitz’s otherwise black-and-white film series Heimat in which significant, colourised objects glow, but also of the wistful song ‘Scarlet Ribbons (for Her Hair)’.

Berry’s work is a tour de force of vignettes, letters, reports, prose and poetry propelled by alliteration, assonance, rhyme, repetition and metre. Is the marketing of the poem as ‘a novel in verse’ a publisher’s ploy to attract the widest possible audience? It would be a pity if

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