‘Devotion’ by Nell Leyshon ****

I very much admired Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk upon reading it a few years ago, and was eager to read more of her work.  It has taken me a while, but I was able to find a copy of her second novel, 2008’s Devotion, online, and eagerly read it whilst on holiday during the summer.

9780330426428Devotion sounded more traditional in terms of its plot and setting than the aforementioned The Colour of MilkThe Observer has described it as ‘a moving tale of a family falling apart’, and author Catherine O’Flynn writes that it is ‘a compelling study of a family cast adrift; written with subtlety and sensitivity, this deceptively simple tale pulls the reader closer with each page.’  The Times Literary Supplement says that Devotion questions ‘how we understand situations and feelings, and how we read the story of ourselves.’

Rachel, the wife of Andrew and mother of two girls named Grace and Tilly, decides at the outset of the novel that her marriage is no longer working, and asks Andrew to leave.  At this point, she feels as though she is in control, and knows what she is doing, ‘but Rachel is wrong, and her decision has consequences no one could have foreseen.’

The entire story is told from all four of their perspectives, an approach which adds an awful lot of depth.  Tilly, the youngest family member at six years old, is the one who struggles the most with the decision, not really understanding what has happened, or what has caused it.  At the end of her first piece, she says: ‘His books are still here even though Dad isn’t.  I watched him drive off with his car full of insects and suitcases and books, but I don’t know where he went.  Teenage daughter Grace is the one who discovers quite how quickly her mother has moved on after going to deliver a cup of tea to her bedroom one morning: ‘My mother’s dyed red hair was spread over the pillow.  Her skin was tanned and she wore her silver bangles on her arm which was draped over him.  Her arm, over him.  This person I had never seen before.’

Devotion is a highly immersive contemporary novel.  One quickly gets a feel for the characters; the girls particularly have a vividness and vivacity to them, and their voices feel like realistic ones.  Leyshon is incredibly perceptive, and so understanding of emotions; she notes how each character changes as the novel goes on, and how they are forced to change by others.  She demonstrates the ways in which people can protect others, and also how they can put them at their most vulnerable, and their most alone.  The feeling of unease which begins to creep in has been placed so well.

It is tempting to speed through this thoughtful and searching novel to its cataclysmic ending, merely in order to see what happens, but this is a novel to savour.  Leyshon’s writing has a quiet beauty to it, particularly with regard to her descriptions of the natural world.  The highly accomplished Devotion is a book which I likened to Ali Smith’s wonderful The Accidental as I was reading it, and I hope it is one which many readers discover sooner rather than later.

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