I must admit that I hadn’t heard of prolific author Kathy Page before she was selected as the monthly author for my online book club during February. I chose to start with The Story of My Face, as it sounded the most appealing out of her oeuvre to me. Helen Dunmore called it a ‘moving, absorbing story’, and Sarah Waters named it as one of her books of the year in 2003 after its publication the previous year.
The protagonist and narrator of The Story of My Face is Natalie Baron, who is thirteen and living in a small town in Suffolk when the story begins. At this point in her life, she is ‘adrift in the world and looking for something or someone to latch on to.’ For Natalie, salvation of a sort comes when she meets Barbara Hern and her family, husband John and son Mark. They are members of a strict Protestant sect named the Worldwide Congregation of the Engvallist Church of Grace.
Three decades later, Natalie moves to a small wooden house in Finland, the place in which the sect was dreamt up by local Tuomas Engvall. Here, she ‘researches the life of the sect’s founder in an attempt to understand the devastating events which changed not only her face but also the course of her life.’ She is currently working as a lecturer at Durham University, and feels compelled to travel to this out-of-the-way town in order to fully immerse herself in her research, walking in Engvall’s footsteps, as it were. Of course, the story of her own childhood is bound up with her research; of this, she reflects: ‘But perhaps what I am really doing, and have been doing ever since the accident happened, is telling the story of my face, in which Tuomas Engvall plays a part… And of course, the story of my face is bound together with other stories; the story of a marriage, of a mother and her son; of the birth of a dream; of the archaeology of an accident. It is also a love story of sorts.’
This transition between present and past moves smoothly, and it is very easy to pick up on the points at which the story shifts. The earlier sections, which are told using a mixture of first and third person perspectives, feel far more sensual, and contained more of interest. I found Page’s inconstant style easy to get used to. Whilst I was not that interested in Natalie as an adult – she felt rather too run-of-the-mill to me – I found her fascinating as a child. She asserted her independence, in the summer of 1969, against her dysfunctional family, taking off to a summer meeting with the Hern family without saying anything to her mother. I found young Natalie an unusual and quite complex construct, but did not feel as though her adult persona carried either of these qualities.
At the outset of the novel, Natalie outlines her status as an outsider in her present-day life: ‘I don’t like it, but the fact is I am a complete stranger in this unpronounceable speck of a place, Elojoki, that seems to have been dropped in the middle of flat and freezing nowhere, roughly 200 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle. There are four shops, one road, a scattering of low-rise buildings, high winds, ice and conifers for miles. It would be odd if I didn’t attract attention.’ At this point, she has only just arrived in Finland, and has a strong sense of doubt about her decision: ‘Right now, the whole trip, which I’ve worked towards for years, seems ludicrous: a woman of forty-four, not married, nor even attached, searching for a long-dead man.’ Soon afterwards, a woman from her past, Christina, recognises her when she is walking around the town, and accuses Natalie of coming ‘to destroy us’. She is taken aback, and responds in the following way: ‘I point, using my bad hand, at my patchwork, asymmetrical face, a blotched parody of everyone else’s, which was the absolute best that could be done back then.’ She asks Christina, ‘Isn’t this enough for you?’
I really enjoy descriptive writing in literary fiction, and whilst The Story of My Face started off well in that respect, I did not feel as though this element of the novel was particularly consistent. I did like the way in which Page set out Natalie’s surroundings in Finland at the beginning of the novel: ‘Nonetheless, this was the beginning of spring. The sea-ice glowed, opal and milk beneath a vast and cloudless sky. The twigs of the birches were reddening; already on some of them there were catkins and tiny aromatic buds. They would grow redder and redder over the coming weeks, and then, suddenly, be covered in green. By then, the skylark would be calling.’ I would certainly have liked to see more of such settings at work in the book, however; there is comparatively little of both Suffolk and Finland shown by the author, particularly as the novel progresses, and the story could really be transplanted to a whole host of locations without much having to be changed. Page had a hold on both characters and scenes, and these are what the novel really revolves around.
Whilst I still held a curiosity toward the story, The Story of My Face was neither as gripping, nor as immersive, as I was expecting. The novel was a readable one, but it did not really pull me in. I felt as though the second half was more powerful than the first. Whilst I am fine with reading books where very little happens, it felt as though a lot which had been included in The Story of My Face was there merely for the purposes of padding. The pace was a little off at times, and I did find some of the prose a touch repetitive, particularly when Natalie is recounting her present. I would read another of Page’s books in future to see how it compares, but I will not rush to do so, as I was not at all blown away by this.