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Book review: Getting Colder, by Amanda Coe

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 December, 2014, 11:19pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 December, 2014, 11:19pm

Getting Colder
by Amanda Coe
Virago

In Amanda Coe's second novel, a woman dies of cancer and her relatives gather for the funeral.

Sarah had abandoned her first husband and two children in 1979 for Patrick, once a famous playwright and now a needy drunk. She was 30 years old, daughter Louise was 10 and son Nigel was 13.

Coe has written a shrewd yet sympathetic account of what happens when erotic love trumps the maternal, and a mother leaves home. If Coe were less skilful, the contrast between Louise and Nigel might appear crude. Louise, brought up by her mum's sister, Auntie B, after her dad remarried and also rejected them, is a single, unemployed, fat, working-class mum of two teens.

Nigel, sent to boarding school with Patrick's money and then to Oxford, is a rich solicitor, married to a woman who looks like a catalogue model, whose lack of sympathy for his younger sibling is edged with disgust.

Not that Nigel has escaped the damage wreaked by his parents' desertion; in his case it has been internalised in symptoms and allergies including hay fever, sciatica and crippling indigestion.

Thrown together in Patrick's crumbling Cornish hideaway, where Louise has never been before but now plans an extended stay because her daughter, Holly, has fallen victim to a sexual predator up north, she and Nigel face the consequences of suddenly losing their mother for the second time.

In a series of flashbacks to their childhood, Coe lays out for us, in the detail of two awful visits, Louise's overwhelming sense of loss, "the smell of Mum she hadn't smelled for months and the shape she'd left behind like a cut-out", more painful by far than Patrick's vileness. In between the chapters are Patrick's love letters to Sarah, filled with sexy blandishments and ardour.

The character-driven novel is crisply plotted and filled with pleasurably sharp observations. Coe turns a winning phrase, such as when Nigel and his wife's sobbing son interrupts their lovemaking and they freeze "in position like escaping PoWs in a war film".

As a follow-up to her chilling 2011 debut What They Do in the Dark, Coe's new novel succeeds with style.

Guardian News & Media