Last week, I asked what was Kristjana thinking as she listened to Leo tell the story of his mother’s turbulent early years?
At first, the answer at the start of Chapter 4 appears to be ‘not much’ for when Leo tells her that she looks ‘troubled’, Kristjana replies that she is ‘sorry for [Liljana], that’s all‘ (my emphasis).
Is that really all?
Not by a longshot. If this had been a battle, Leo’s attack would have breached Kristjana’s defences and brought her to her knees.
How? Well, Liljana’s troubled childhood has awoken in Kristjana memories of her own early years, which from her first days through to adulthood, were equally unpleasant. Why? What could have had such a huge impact on her that this suffering lasted so long?
After all but fleeing from Leo and the convent hospital, Kristjana blames her reaction to Leo’s story on the fear of future mental ill health. We know from the prologue that she fears the future but I can’t help but think that this is an excuse, that the real reason remains hidden? Am I right? Time will tell.
One other thing – this opening section of Chapter 4 completely changes my image of Kristjana. Her response to Leo never stuck in my mind when I read the book a few months ago and so before starting it again, I saw her as a young, impetuous but otherwise stable woman. Now, she looks to be a damaged one. Perhaps seriously so. I will certainly try to remember this for the rest of the book.
The story now returns to Liljana. We join her in the Villa Burnett, home of George and Susan Burnett, ex-pat friends of Dr. Hampton’s. He has brought Liljana there in the hope of persuading them to take her on as a domestic servant.
Susan Burnett is vile. She impatiently declares Liljana’s name to be unpronounceable, speaks down to the child and is openly contemptuous of her and her mother. She acts like the proverbial wicked step-mother. This gives the story a brief fairy-tale edge that is only broken by the arrival of the more friendly George Burnett.
The fairy tale soon returns, however, for after the Burnetts agree to take Liljana on, she is sent to the kitchen to work with the redoubtable Mrs Debono who in her kindness to Liljana could be seen as something of a fairy godmother. As for ‘Lily’ as Mrs Burnett calls her, there is no space in Mrs Debono’s room for a bed so she sleeps in a ‘nest of blankets’. It’s all a bit Cinderella.
Chapter 4 is a real emotional roller coaster. Kristjana’s sadness and mental anguish, Liljana’s life going from bad to worse before recovering to being not just acceptable but – thanks to Mrs Debono – almost arcadian. But even in arcadia, death dwells, and we are given an intimation of that both in a flash forward to an older Liljana thinking about that period and wondering how it ended so quickly (in less than a year) and a childhood ‘vision’ of Liljana’s where she sees a boat about to be consumed either by the sea or sun.