Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

Private Rites by Julia Armfield review – familial conflict before the final days

Private Rites by Julia Armfield review – familial conflict before the final days

In Julia Armfield’s third book the effects of the climate crisis are felt daily. The city in which sisters Isla, Irene and Agnes live has been transformed by endless rain – and in turn its inhabitants have had to transform their existence, living in houses higher and higher up, and travelling via ferry where train lines once ran.

The world is “in its final stages”, Armfield tells us near the start of the book. Yet her characters do not live as though in an emergency. The siblings moan about their jobs, delayed commutes and relationships that are on the rocks. No matter the circumstances, we will always be anchored by life’s mundanities, Armfield seems to say. It’s reassuring.

The sisters aren’t in regular contact, until they are brought together by the death of their father. It’s an occasion about which each of them isn’t sure how to feel. Their dad, Stephen Carmichael (“the man, myth”, Armfield writes, mocking his legacy even before we hear why he was renowned), was an architect. Remembered as a visionary, he designed structures with rising water levels in mind – but only for those who could afford it.

He was an unloving father. At home he played his daughters off against one another, “giving pocket money only to Irene and telling her not to tell Isla” one minute, “referring to Irene as nasty Irene and making her sisters laugh with imitations of her voice and expressions” the next. Now adults, the sisters – from whose perspectives the chapters rotate – know that their dislike of one another stems from their father’s cruelty.

As in her previous novel, Our Wives Under the Sea, and her short-story collection, Salt Slow, Armfield’s writing is evocative yet grounded, blending the mythical with the cavalier. Venice, she writes, was “long gone, of course, even before things really started to slip”. Her imagination is vivid: as the rain worsens, Agnes finds sea anemones growing along the grouting. Neighbours find crustaceans in their gutters.

As Isla, Irene and Agnes go through the motions of their father’s death – organising his funeral, seeing to his will – they have a series of peculiar encounters with strangers. I felt guilty when I realised I had found the final scene, which features cultish violence, more troubling than the reels of pages detailing people losing their homes because of flooding. Climate disaster is devastating, we know, but human-to-human assaults seem far worse. Until we remember that the climate crisis too is human-made – and must be approached with just the same terror.

skip past newsletter promotion

Source: theguardian.com