Painting portraits of relationships

In the idyllic summer of 1967, sisters Julia, Finn and Maisie Mortland pose for a group portrait at their home in sun-drenched Suffolk. The events of that '60s summer of love would have a profound effect on their lives and on the lives of those who loved them.

This is the opening to Sally Beauman's latest novel, The Landscape of Love, which initially reads like romantic fiction but soon veers off into much more complicated territory. It is at once a ghost story, a love story and a detective story. Beauman isn't easily pigeon-holed as a writer. She received an advance of $1m for her 1980s blockbuster, Destiny, the largest ever for a first novel. She followed this with Dark Angel, a historical family saga, before taking on the audacious task of writing a sequel to Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca. Beauman's Rebecca's Tale generated both critical acclaim and commercial success, selling over 50,000 hardback copies.

The Landscape of Love is a tale of the three Mortland sisters (the beautiful one, the bookish one and the odd one) and the three men who were mesmerised by them (the artist, the doctor and Dan, the gypsy son of the family housekeeper).

Beauman continues this three motif throughout the novel, which is divided into three parts. Each part has its own narrator, each of whom has a completely different interpretation of the events of that fateful summer.

The novel opens in the voice of the youngest sister, Maisie, who may possibly be autistic but certainly makes an unreliable witness. She obsessively makes lists and speaks to the dead as if they were ever-present. She gives her account of that summer but stops short of explaining the dramatic event that destroyed it.

Beauman then fast-forwards events 23 years to a bleak London winter and Dan, now an advertising executive, takes over as narrator. The portrait of the three sisters is being exhibited in London and an increasingly desperate Dan is seeking answers as to why his life is falling apart. He believes these answers lie in the events of 1967 but reliving them brings him no solace.

The novel closes in the cool, measured tones of lifestyle guru Julia, who knows that there are no easy answers. There's no 'happy ever after' for Beauman's characters.

Instead the abrupt ending leaves the reader to ponder the vagaries of love and the things we do to the people we profess to love.

Rowena Walsh

Irish Independent, 29.1.05.