Maribel is half-Chilean, half-French, and met her husband while she was at school in Paris, when his horse reared in front of her. At least, that’s the story they tell, but as we follow Maribel through the long, hot summer, it becomes clear that her story is more complicated and much darker. The question is, does the crusading newspaper editor Webster know it too? And can he blackmail her to get at her husband, his sometime ally, sometime opponent?
Clark is interested less in Maribel’s story and more in the knife-thin line that separates memory from truth: if we really believe in the former, does it become the latter? Fascinating though such questions are in themselves, they encourage many of her narrative threads to trail away unresolved because the interiority of her characters matters more to her. For instance, a subplot involving one of Cody’s Native Americans is given two whole chapters. But then, when he has served his technical function, which is to link Maribel with another character, he vanishes from the story, even though Clark has made us want to know what becomes of him. The power of memory triumphs over the power of narrative, not always to the reader’s benefit.
One wonders if the book was perhaps written too quickly. Clark has a talent for an unusual metaphor – on the very first page, “a dark figure leaked into the room”, and stands “as silent as syrup”. Yet here she permits her characters to do something as inexpressive as “make a face” twice in two pages, or to misuse the word “blandishment”. But ultimately what remains with the reader are Clark’s ideas of stories, and story-tellers. Another photographer rejects Maribel’s concern for one of her sitters. Who he really is, what he feels, he says, is “immaterial. What matters is … the moment you have created, the boy you have made. This boy belongs to all of us. We are each free to tell his story in whichever way we choose.” It is not hard to believe Clark is speaking for herself, and for the power of fiction. She too has created such a moment, a London filled with the hungry and defiant, the rich and self-absorbed, and the many in between, which now belongs to us all.