Leigh’s images are simple and powerful in this brief tale that takes place in a French chateau. The facts are immediately addressed: Olivia has returned to her mother’s estate in search of refuge, broken arm in a sling, her bruised body disguised by clothing. Burdened by their backpacks and suitcases, two young children straggle behind their mother, a boy, nine, and a girl, six.
Clearly there has been little - or no - communication between mother and daughter until now. Suited in tweed and pearls, a fading aristocratic mother accepts these unexpected guests into her home. More visitors are due momentarily: Malcolm, Olivia’s brother, and his wife, Sophie, will arrive soon after the birth of their baby, celebratory balloons tied to the staircase in the foyer.
Unfortunately, when Malcolm arrives, he delivers distressing news. The baby has not survived her birth, although Sophie, per agreement with concerned doctors, has brought baby Alice with her, adding a grotesque element to an already tense landscape. Yet the author, by the sheer force of her prose, pens a story of personal redemption, quiet conflict and an unerring sense of human frailty in the face of life’s often terrible realities.
Olivia speaks of her brutal husband as “my murderer.” The children, Andrew and Lucy, exist in a child’s world of proportions, carefully watching their mother, Andrew making secret preparations for a return to Australia where their father waits, so far removed from France. Lucy stubbornly clings to her doll, pushing a toy stroller over the drive in mimicry of adult childcare.
Overwhelmed by her unexpected burden, Sophie withdraws, creating a tiny world where she will never have to give up baby Alice or face the terrible truth of the child’s death. The author handles her characters with tenderness and specificity, excising the superficial, focusing on the internal changes that occur in such situations. Given their actions in the midst of crisis, including Malcolm’s frantic phone calls to his mistress, it is impossible to project what will happen.
Will Olivia’s weakness for her husband’s affection and subtle brutality undo her best intentions? Will Andrew and Lucy leave to return to their father? How will Sophie be persuaded to relinquish her infant to the cold earth? The denouement is stunning, a precipice which may yield horror or transcendence, a brilliant flash of images and pure intentions. Clarity washes over this family drama, both complex and beautifully simple in its resolution.