Monday, August 26, 2013

Caitlin Davies' Family Likeness, an affecting tale about the search for belonging in postwar and modern Britain

Caitlin Davies' Family Likeness begins like a film that's been deliberately shot out of focus.  Its two stories have no obvious connection at first, and it's only later, as the plots and characterizations develop, that the big picture sharpens.

In an upscale north London neighborhood in the present, Rosie Grey happens upon a new position not long after leaving her previous teaching job.  After preventing a young girl's collision with a cyclist, the girl's father, a visiting black American named Jonas Murrey, asks Rosie to become the live-in nanny for his daughter and her younger brother while he's on a business trip overseas.

As Rosie adjusts to this odd situation raising two unfamiliar children during their father's six-week absence she establishes a daily routine, taking them to nursery and school and on outings, and puzzles over Jonas' failure to answer an email about Ella's schooling.

Intertwined with Rosie's diary entries is the affecting story of a mixed-race girl growing up in a children's home in 1950s Kent. Muriel Wilson, whose dark complexion ensures she'll always remain an outsider, wonders why her mam, a beautiful white woman, left her there and never visits.  Decades later, reunited with her original admissions papers, Muriel remembers how alone she felt, having had essentially to raise herself, confused about the matron's coldness toward her in that cheerless place and accepting that foster parents for her would never be found.

"Here I am at the age of sixty-five," she says, "still searching for my childhood... some days it is as if I am crouching by a pond, my hands plunged in the water, looking for a fish that I know is there.  And I can't find it; it is as slippery and elusive as a memory."  Muriel's sad coming-of-age story is the novel's most effective aspect, evoking the distressing plight of "half-caste" children (an authentic but dreadful label) growing up in the postwar years.

Rosie's personality is difficult to read until she gets to know and care for her charges. Bobby is an adorable toddler, while Ella is a clever yet troubled nine-year-old who needs more attention than her father gives her. Davies also pulls the story along through Rosie's occasional hints that her job as the children's nanny was something she'd planned from the start.

On an excursion to a stately home on the city's outskirts, Rosie and the children see a portrait on the wall of a young 18th-century woman, Dido Elizabeth Belle, who Ella thinks resembles Rosie.  Dido is a historical figure: the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and a woman of African Caribbean origin, she was brought up alongside her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, at London's Kenwood House.  Although often described as "Britain's first black aristocrat," Dido's status in the Murray household wasn't that assured.

Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin, Elizabeth Murray, artist unknown

Dido doesn't play as major a role in the novel as the jacket blurb indicates, which is a bit disappointing; instead, her presence serves to emphasize the uncertain positions occupied by those of black heritage in historical Britain.  However, it suffices to pique interest in her life.  (An upcoming film, Belle, promises to offer a more complete picture.)

Saying exactly why would mean venturing into spoilerville, but one aspect of the resolution to the mystery of Muriel's parents and how it ties to Rosie's experiences feels too tidy.  But despite that and the distancing effect of the early sections, Family Likeness remains a thoughtful and involving look at the social consequences of race and illegitimacy and how one's need for a place to belong never really goes away.

Family Likeness was published by Hutchinson in July at £14.99 (hb, 311pp); find it on Goodreads here.  Davies is an English writer, the daughter of authors Margaret Forster and Hunter Davies.  This was a personal purchase.


  1. A very well written tribute to this book. I'd like to read it now! Thanks!

    1. Thanks for your comment! It was definitely worth reading, and I have two other historicals by the same author waiting to be read, too.

  2. An interesting novel and one I would not have found by myself. My heart was touched by the thought of a child essentially abandoned by its mother, for whatever reason. Children pay such a price for society's omissions. In another life I was a Montessori teacher and so feel quite sensitive to the plight of innocents.

    1. I came across this one by browsing through the historical fiction category at Book Depository and decided to buy it. Your comments about children are spot on.