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Sophie Cooke: The Glass House

At the start of this novel, Vanessa Gordon is fourteen. She lives with her mother, Mary, and her older sister, Lucy and her younger sister, Bryony. Her father works as an engineer in Saudi Arabia and visits occasionally but only occasionally. With the possible exception of Lucy, the family all seem to have some psychological issues, though the skill of Cooke is to show these gradually emerging. In other words, from the outside, they look a relatively normal family; from the inside there are cracks in the glass.

Vanessa has just been expelled from boarding school (her two sisters are still there) and will transfer to the local school. When she does get there, she does not like it, not least because the other pupils accuse her of being posh, partially because, though she is Scottish born and bred, she does not have a Scottish accent. She gets teased by some of them. The only consolation is Alan McAlpine, whom she had known before but who now seems interested in her. Meanwhile, back at home, her relationship with her mother remains ambiguous. Her mother, at times, beats Vanessa (but not, it seems, the other two girls), often quite severely, though Vanessa always seem to forgive her and when her mother is not in one of her rages, they seem to have a good relationship.

Mary is quite critical of her husband with her daughters (who somewhat resent this). However, Vanessa finds out that her mother has started an affair with John Crawford, a married man, father and friend of the family. She does not tell her sisters (who are away at boarding school). She herself starts an affair with Alan (to the envy of some of her fellow pupils) and soon they are having (protected) sex. Indeed, when Mary finds out, she gives her daughter some condoms! When her father finds out about Vanessa and Alan, he tells her that she is too young to have a boyfriend (she is fifteen by now). At a Christmas party that year (1994), when their father is visiting, the Crawford family comes round and Lucy starts a relationship with Malcolm, the oldest son. This becomes complicated when Lucy and Malcolm find out about the relationship of their respective parents, though they do only find out much later.

Things get more complicated when Alan and Vanessa start to drift apart and John Crawford refuses to leave his wife for Mary. Alan starts a relationship with Sarah Black and Vanessa finds it hard to let go. Mary seems to be becoming more and more distraught – she bites Lucy in a fit of rage – and breaks off with John Crawford, though they later get back together. Meanwhile, Vanessa is drifting. She fails her Highers and cannot get into university. She helps her mother in flower arranging and wreath-making and then gets a job as a cleaner in a hostel but that goes wrong. Things are bad back home as Mary attempts suicide and Bryony seemingly becomes anorexic and appears very much detached from the world. It is not helped when their father does not come home that summer.

Things do not get better in the Gordon family as Mary, Vanessa and Bryony all have their psychological problems. Only Lucy seems to be able to keep her head above water, while their father seems more or less out of the picture. Cooke tells an excellent story of a dysfunctional family which slowly but surely slips into a situation which, while not cataclysmic, is certainly unsustainable. Cooke’s skill, indeed, is not to make the family a totally dysfunctional family but, rather, one that, while having more than its fair share of problems, seems to sort of limp along, at least from the perspective of the outside world. Given that we see the situation from the point of view of Vanessa, one of the family members with psychological problems, rather than, say from the point of view of Lucy, the only one of the four women who is more or less psychologically balanced, adds to the interest of this book, as it becomes fairly apparent that Vanessa is not telling us everything. This is Cooke’s first novel and a very promising one it is.

Publishing history

First published by Hutchinson in 2004