The conventionally bucolic ideas of families is that they are warm, safe, inclusively supporting places where unconditional love and selfless intimacy are the hallmarks of relationships brought together and nurtured, not just by proximity but by a genuine liking for the others with whom you are fated by birth to spend your life.
Not all families are like that, of course, with some sadly resembling gothic horror shows on steroids, but of those that do match the happy ideal, many do manage, in ways gloriously imperfect but nurturing still, to happily live out the first paragraph to some satisfying degree.
But as Kylie Ladd empathetically lays out in her brilliantly resonant new novel, I’ll Leave You With This, not everyone, even those in families who kicked off in a loving, supportive manner, can manage to stick the ideal families landing.
The O’Sheas were once, on paper at least, the family from central casting.
Blessed with parents who actually loved each other, and who carried their five disparate children – four girls and one boy, the much-loved and flamboyantly creative Daniel – along for the familial ride, the O’Sheas papered over many of the cracks separating them with a love that seemed able to weather just about anything.
Then a series of family tragedies strike and suddenly what looked so certain and so richly loving, remained in outline only, the four girls forced to deal with the loss of Daniel who is killed in horrific circumstances in his early thirties, an event which reveals how far apart they actually are and which pushes further apart still, united only by tradition and a loose sense that they should be there for each other, especially on significant anniversaries.
Shame wrestles with exhaustion, but exhaustion wins. They were always so busy, too busy. It was why they never had sex, that and things like the apron. She [Alison] straightens up, goes back to her seat and starts the car. Jason can deal with it later. She has had enough of looking after people for one day, living or dead. She just wants to go to sleep.
They honestly couldn’t be more different if they tried.
Alison, eldest child to the hilt, is a successful obstetrician, devoted to the welfare of others ahead of herself and fraught by a grinding sense that she is failing to balance her demanding job and the ever-present needs of her young family; by way of stark, glittery contrast, Bridie, the one who was closest to Daniel in age and creative temperament, is an actor and director who has one big film to her name but who has yet to realise her potential, all while grappling with a handsome, talented actor husband who’s one great acting gig away from hitting the bigtime.
While Bridie is glamourous and influencer-ready, at least when her doubts aren’t eating her alive, Clare, a nurse whose wife has just left her, is solely focused on having a baby any way she can, a need so primal and insistent that it stands a good chance of wrecking her and everything else around her.
Emma, the youngest, and the one most buffetted by the various tragedies that have befallen this once-closely loving family – much of that down to the devoted parents whose absence is keenly felt – is not concerned with earthly needs, though she would love a godly man by her side, but rather with serving God, ostensibly because she is His follower, but also, it turns out, because her soul, supposedly full to the brim with religious goodness, is a wounded crater unable to be filled .
As I’ll Leave You With This kicks off, in a quiet but emotionally powerful way that is immersively all-encompassing and beautifully character-rich, you find yourself wondering how on earth these four quite different people will find a way to knit themselves back together again, and if they even want to.
That is the relatable genius of this arrestingly grounded of novels.
It knows that we all want that perfect family, those close relationships and that Christmas-all-year-round vibes to our get-togethers but that so much of the time, differing personalities and life intervene and we are left wishing we had that closeness but feeling manifestly unable to get anywhere near it.
Throw in familial emotional trauma and a lack of ability or intimacy with whim to articulate how it has affected you, and you have a recipe for a family whose members remain in each other’s orbit but with no idea how to do much more than be near each other.
Every single one of the O’Shea women (and Daniel’s sweet ex Joel who is practically part of the family) wants more, for themselves and for their relationships with each other, but like all of us floundering and stumbling through life, rich in expectation but poor in satisfying execution, they can’t seem to make it all happen in the way they vaguely want.
Joel takes the bottle from her and squeezes her hand. Clare cries once more, but not for long. The sun is going down in a flurry of gold and red and lilac, and she doesn’t want to miss it.
Drawing together a propulsive narrative and real emotionally meditative depth, I’ll Leave You With This actually brings with it some real, practical hope.
There is no magicking of relationships into sparklingly perfect shape, nor any epiphanic moments where all the lost pieces find themselves in a nourishing whole; rather Ladd brilliantly and evocatively, and quite movingly and funnily in equal measure, tells the story of four sisters who somehow find a way back to each other in ways that are flawed and aren’t quite the ideal but which do the job because they restore a lost intimacy that you could well argue is more real than anything they had before.
Navigating each other’s expectations, and the great hole that Daniel’s death has left in their lives, the O’Shea sisters feel like appealingly real people who are shooting emotionally for the stars, both personally and as a family (whom you will come to adore) group, but who never quite manage to leave the ground until circumstances, many of them gloriously ordinary and accidental, intervene and they find themselves together in a way that finally makes nurturing, happy sense.
I’ll Leave You With This is a joy to read, not because every chapter is a slice of joy waiting to be uncovered – in fact, much of it is brutally, emotionally honest about how life rips us apart, and how hard it is to heal those wounds and find each ourselves and those we love again – but because it’s truthful about the human condition and about how while we long for connection with those supposedly closest to us, we often only find it, if we find it at all, when life is at its worst, and we discover how much we need and mean to one another.