This is the story of Vanessa and Gerald, who fall in love in the sixties when she is an art student and he a sculptor. They marry, have children, divorce, have other lovers, meet again with tragic consequences, but never stop loving each other. When they are finally reunited and find the chemistry between them is as strong as ever, they have to come to terms with their past and accept the power of their enduring love.
In the years spent apart from Gerald, Vanessa establishes a successful designer knitwear business. Her garments are highly sought after, placing texture and colour at the heart of the design process. They transcend fashion to become works of art, both worn and adored.
- Vanessa was born in London. Her parents are Irish, and, particularly her father, long to return there. She has a much younger brother and sister.
- When she is young, Vanessa’s ambition is to be a fashion designer. Her heroine is Mary Quant. Vanessa loves different fabrics and hoards pieces she acquires in a case under her bed. What else does she keep in the case – at the beginning of the novel, and then at the end?
- When Vanessa meets Gerald at art college, she is a student of 18 and he is a tutor. She is swept away by his charismatic personality and artistic talent. She falls instantly in love. Do you think she is still ‘in love’ with Gerald at the end of the novel?
- Vanessa has three children, Cordelia, Esme and Jake. They mean everything to her, and yet some people would say she is a bad mother.
- Vanessa lives in London, Oxfordshire and Lyme Regis in Dorset. Which of these places does she like best?
- Vanessa establishes a successful knitwear design business. How integral is her passion for knitting and crochet to ’Unravelling’?
- Gerald is a highly-successful sculptor. He is the sort of person you either love or hate. What aspects of his personality might be responsible for these extreme reactions?
- While Vanessa’s family and early life in London are clear, Gerald’s background is far more shadowy. There is a suggestion of something foreign about him – his accent, his swarthy looks – and his half-sister lives in South America.
- Gerald disappears from Vanessa’s life twice during the novel. What is the difference between the two absences?
- The young Cordelia adores Gerald. What factors contribute to her later hatred of him? How is Gerald affected by her refusal to see him?
- Cordelia is born in 1964, when her mother is only 20. Her father named her Cordelia for a particular reason. One scene in the book recalls this.
- From when she is tiny, Cordelia adores her father. But his disappearances from her life lead to a distrust of men and an emotional insecurity that blight her life.
- When she meets Patrick, she has a chance of happiness at last. But will she be able to resolve her uncertainties sufficiently to allow this to happen?
- Cordelia blames her mother for Gerald’s absence from her life? Do you think she has grounds for this?
- Cordelia has a teenage daughter, Savannah. While Cordelia is introverted and psychologically damaged, Savannah is outgoing and fearless.
- Like her parents, Cordelia is an artist. Has she inherited their talent, and can she ever be as successful as them?
After the accident, which is at the heart of ‘Unravelling’, Vanessa moved to Lyme Regis in Dorset. She bought a cottage by the River Lym and has made a successful life for heself. She loves living in Lyme Regis. The following section from the novel conveys her love for the place.
The river alongside her cottage is dark and fast flowing on its way to the sea. The sound is familar and comforting, the first she hears when she wakes, the last before she falls asleep. As soon as she gets home, she takes a lasagne from the firde and puts it in the oven; she clears the dishwasher and makes up her bed with crisp cotton sheets, every action helping to throw off London. She resists checking emails or phone messages, wanting only to absorb the feeling of being at one with herself that this place gives her.When she moved to Lyme Regis more than twenty years ago, the three-storey cottage was almost derelict. There had been a flood and a lot of work was needed to put the damage right, but she could see staright away that it would make just the sort of home she wanted. Somewhere to rebuild her life. And she has. She’s been happy and successful.’
Vanessa particularly loves The Cobb, the ancient sea wall protecting the town from the sea, where she walks most days on her way to her shop. The Cobb has appeared in other novels, most notably ‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen and ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ by John Fowles. The latter was made into a film and the scene where the main character stands at the end of The Cobb in her black cloak has become an iconic image.
If you look at the map, you can see the area where Vanessa lives. Her cottage is at the corner of Coombe Street and Sherborne Lane, and her shop is in Silver Street. When Vanessa is in Lyme, she usually walk along Marine Parade and out along The Cobb on her way to work.
The characters and themes of ‘Unravelling’ provoke lively debate. It is therefore an interesting book for reading groups. I am happy to visit groups who choose ‘Unravelling’ as their book for discussion.
I wrote ‘Unravelling’ because I wanted to explore the concept of a love that survives a lifetime, despite separation, estrangement and betrayal. Its early title was All That Remains from the notion that whatever life throws at us, what counts in the end – what ‘remains’ is love.
Some questions about ‘Unravelling’:
- What differences are there in the novel about ‘young’ love and ‘old’ love?
- What is there about Vanessa and Gerald’s love that makes it survive divorce, estrangement and tragedy?
- Is Gerald a monster or a magnetic character?
- How does the present day Vanessa compare with Vanessa from the past?
- What are the similarities and differences between the three generations of women – Vanessa, Cordelia and Savannah?
Read the First Chapter
There should be a scar. Vanessa’s often imagined it, an ugly, angry weal crawling over his forehead. Her eyes search for it. The wall light above his head creates a pool of shadow, and she can’t see it. His head is cocked at an angle, just as it used to be, as if the rest of the world’s out of kilter with him and he’s trying to make sense of it.
She steels herself for the moment he’ll look up, but he’s staring into the flickering glow of the candle on the table. The waiter turns to her and raises his eyebrows. He gestures to the table, but she shakes her head.
She edges away. Retreats. Back through the long room, past tables with their white linen cloths. People. A couple, heads close. His fingers trailing through her blonde hair. Her lips lifting in a smile. A group. The flash of raised glasses. Mouths open … laughter. She can’t hear it. The thrumming in her ears drowns everything out. Her gaze flits over the wood-panelled walls, up to the chandeliers. Like spiders, waiting. The scent of the lilies on the mahogany dresser inside the door catches in her throat.
At last, the hotel foyer. The grandfather clock next to the reception desk chimes seven. Her heart races against its steady beat.
The maitre d’ appears at her side. ‘Is everything all right, Madam?’
‘It was hot in there.’
‘Would you like some water?’
She shakes her head.
‘Shall I call your guest to come?’
His questions circle like a persistent bluebottle.
‘If you could give me a minute?’
‘Of course, Madam. You can sit here.’ He indicates a low leather sofa. ‘I’ll tell your guest you’ll be with him shortly.’
She perches on the edge of the sofa. Her velvet trousers cling to her thighs and her wooden beads feel tight at her throat. It’s not too late to escape. She glances up at the staircase, imagining the smooth wood of the balustrade cooling her palm. The tranquillity of the hotel room will calm her. With its view over the leafy square, it’s the one she always asks for when she stays in London. Her clothes hang in the wardrobe; her make up is scattered on the bathroom shelf; her laptop is on the desk. The items are familiar, part of the pattern of her days. She can phone down to reception, ask them to tell him she’s unwell. She imagines his face as he listens to the waiter’s whispered message. He’s bound to be disappointed. ‘I can’t wait to see you again,’ he said in their last phone call. She remembers the deep creases that made his heavy brows merge when he was cross or disappointed, the pouting lower lip, the way he would drag his hand through his already unruly hair.
His hair. Black, wild, gloriously wild. But not now. She sees again the shorn head, pale and vulnerable, bending towards the candle on the table. Shorn. Shriven. Forgiven. Not now. Not yet.
The years have left their mark on her too. She fingers her eyes where she knows he’ll see a network of lines that weren’t there when he last saw her. The furrows on her forehead that gathered permanently after the accident. But her hair is still much the same: a golden red that he liked to call titian; curly, always escaping from the comb she tries to tame it with. And her body is slim. True, her breasts have grown heavier and fuller, and the ice-sharp hip bones that he used to complain dug into him in bed are now covered with soft flesh.
She has almost decided to leave, when she hears the bleat of her mobile. She feels around inside her bag, glances at the name of the caller: her daughter. Her finger hesitates over the accept button. Then she flips the lid shut and drops the phone into her bag. Now is not for Cordelia.
It’s only a second’s delay but time enough for the maitre d’ to reappear. ‘Is Madam ready now?’
She stands up. An invisible hand seems to propel her forward, compels her to place one foot in front of the other. Her heels click on the marble tiles. They reach the heavy oak doors, and the maitre d’ looks back, as if he’s checking she’s still there.
‘If you’d like to come this way.’
They pass through the tables with their white linen cloths. They’ll be there in seconds. No time to calm her breathing, reorganise her face into a sleek smile.
He doesn’t seem to have moved in the time she’s been away. His gaze is still fixed on the flickering candle, as if it might go out if he doesn’t keep watch.
He glances up and gets to his feet. He’s wearing a tweed jacket. What has happened to him that he wears tweed jackets? He holds out both hands and she notices how bony his wrists are. He smiles. It’s a lop-sided grin with none of his old arrogance. But where’s the scar? There should be a scar. He puts his arms round her and she breathes in, expecting to smell cigars. Instead she gets an aroma of expensive after-shave. He used to hate after-shave.
‘Vanessa,’ he says. ‘Beautiful butterfly.’
She draws back from the embrace. ‘Hello.’
He laughs. That same billowing laugh. The laugh that makes you want to fling your arms in the air and dance.
‘What’s so funny?’ she asks.
He shakes his head. ‘I’ve imagined this so many times. How it would be. What you would say.’ He laughs again, this time a little puff of sound that has a world of hurt in it. ‘And all I get is hello.’
She finds it then. The scar. It’s absorbed into the wrinkles on his brow, a fine line faded to silver.
As they sit down, he covers her hand with his, and she sees he’s wearing the signet ring she gave him on their wedding day.