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The book takes the form of three novellas each focussed on one of three women, grandmother, mother, and grandchild, who nevertheless cannot quite be called a family as they were separated from one another by force, by death, by circumstance. The eldest, Lillias, whose parents are both dead, is wooed and won by man who loves her money. They elope and Lillias, who is sixteen, soon finds herself incarcerated in the Beau Rivage Asylum, a private madhouse, where her only ally is her maid. Her aunt, who also wished to protect her, is killed in a suspicious coach accident as she was on her way to save her niece. Thus her daughter, Clementina, was born in 1878 in the asylum where her mother is confined. Her father has no interest whatever in a girl, though he would have taken a boy away the moment he was weaned.
We next meet Clemmie in the second section of the book. It is dated 1894 and opens in a "Home" for "wayward" girls where Clemmie has been for some years after her mother decided that the asylum was no longer an acceptable place for her daughter. Out of ignorance, Lillias has propelled Clemmie into a situation far worse than Beau Rivage and Clemmie finds herself pregnant at an even younger age than her mother was when she had her. Clemmie is, however, made of much tougher stuff than Lillias, as she never entertained the romantic fantasies that had misled her mother. Her pregnancy was not the product of an adolescent love affair but of rape with the rapist a mysterious but powerful man for whom the Matron of the Home provided girls from among those in her charge. Clemmie, frightened that something terrible might happen either to her or to her child, slips away from the Home but not before promising a younger girl she had taken under her wing that she would come back for her when she could.
Finally we meet Clemmie's daughter, Mabel. It is now 1919 and the social changes wrought by the Great War, ended only a couple of months, are at work. Mabel, who was adopted after Clemmie died by a well-to-do woman with a social conscience and a suffragette past, has taken a job with the Metropolitan Police, where she is barely tolerated. It is too soon for her to be an actual police officer, however. Instead, she is hired to conduct formal interviews with women who are either filing complaints or who may be charged with some offence. Her office is a basement storage room, well out of sight. But Mabel has her own agenda - she is hoping to discover how and why the mother she could not remember had died and even who had perhaps killed her.
Readers may recall Moore's hilarious early novels, HELENA HANDBASKET and OLD DOGS, both of which played fast and loose with the familiar tropes of run of the mill crime fiction. THE UNPICKING is not from the same mould. It is instead a stern look at the past, sometimes grim, but always rivetting and never despairing. The three short novellas provide a look at three stations on the journey women have been taking for more than a century. Her emphasis is not on major or even minor victories, but simply on how things were and how they slowly change. The three women protagonists share more than their genes - each does what she can to forestall the fate laid out before her. Even Lillias, who decides that remaining in the asylum is the better choice though she is far from insane. Her maid, Mary Grace, makes her life easier and Lillias comes to see her as an ally rather than an underling.
Her daughter Clemmie is more direct in her attempts to redirect her life and to rescue the younger girl she had left behind when she fled the Home in order to protect her infant daughter. But she t benefits as well from the willingness of a middle-class woman to transcend class barriers, something that, either through snobbery, inattention, or fear of loss of status very few were able to manage. It is she who raises Mabel and Mabel is the first of these women who can tell her own story in her own voice, presumably because she was raised by suffragettes who had learned how to speak for themselves.
Donna Moore writes with great compassion of the challenges faced by these characters but she also has a lively eye for detail. The moments of terror that beset normally outspoken Clemmie when first in the beautifully appointed house of her benefactor speak volumes, but the account also reminds us how tastes change. Best of all, she is so in command of her material that we are engaged by the story and only realize later what we have come to know. THE UNPICKING is an extraordinary book and one that deserves a wide audience and I hope it gets more than a Kindle release on this side of the ocean and soon.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2023
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