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East Fortune by James Runcie

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East Fortune by James Runcie

There is absolutely nothing like reading a good novel right through within a few days as I did recently with East Fortune by James Runcie.

James Runcie tells about the inspiration for the novel, “Ten years ago a friend of mine was driving home in Scotland when a student stepped out into the road in front of him. This wasn’t an accident. It was deliberate and it was a suicide. There was nothing my friend could do to stop this. The boy died. My friend went to the funeral and met the boy’s parents. They told him that he couldn’t possibly be to blame. And yet… This is the starting point of East Fortune, a novel that takes this situation and imagines what happens next.” 

The novel begins with this riveting scene –and the event that changes the life of Jack Henderson, the fictional driver of the car. Jack is an academic; a man who has made his life as uneventful as possible and of course now he will be drawn into the circumstances that play out as a result of the death of the boy, Sandy.

Jack meets Sandy’s girlfriend, Krystyna, at the funeral. She is from Poland but has been living in Edinburgh for some time; her intimate relationship with Sandy had ended shortly before his death. No one is to blame for a suicide, but everyone feels that they are. Jack is the father of two daughters, now young adults living away from home, and he is drawn to Krystyna in a desire to help her. It is truly an offer of friendship that Krystyna, alone, so far from her own family, accepts after some discomfort. Jack takes Krystyna with him when he visits his parents – it is Krystyna who tells them of the tragedy. Of course everyone in the family thinks that Jack has got himself romantically involved with a girl young enough to be one of his students.

Jack is the middle son of Ian and Elizabeth; he has an older brother Angus and a younger brother, Douglas. They have all come home for their father’s annual garden party and play – each assigned a role, along with their wives and children. Jack, recently divorced, brings Krystyna. Angus is there with his wife, Tessa, and their two young daughters, as is Douglas and his wife, Emma. Jack and Krystyna are met at the station by Elizabeth, who “sometimes wished everything could return to the time when her children were young, when there was enough hope and confidence to believe that each of her sons could become anything he wanted. But that was the time before compromise, before all the complications involved in growing up and finding partners and earning money.”

The relationships now play out – we come to know each of the brothers and their wives and the “complications” of the family. These children of Elizabeth and Ian now have their own families – all are part of the family drama that continues at the childhood home as the novel begins. The drama plays out around the dining table, and is later dissected in the bedroom, the jealousies, the slights – intended or not –the resentments.

The reader is that “fly on the wall” observing it all. We know the secrets these people have not shared with each other. And they do all have their secrets. It is the interaction between these characters; some who cannot possibly know how to react to the behaviour of others, not knowing what “secret” is motivating them, and controlling their behaviour. When Jack has dinner with his ex-wife, Maggie, who has learned of the “accident” from one of their daughters, he thinks about how life “happens”. “If Maggie hadn’t left him, then everything would have been different. He would not have been out on his own on election night; he would not have killed Sandy; he would not have met Krystyna.” His life before the “accident” seems a dream. 

We follow the lives of each of the brothers over a period of about a year. Jack comes to care for Krystyna, but “couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be in love again; the desperation and the need; how much he would have to risk and how it would unsettle his life.” Both Angus and Douglas are also at crossroads in their lives. One brother is seriously thinking of making a big change, moving to Italy and beginning a different life. The other has become involved in an affair – which may be reaching its end, as one friend tells him, “affairs only lasted until either you were discovered or the money ran out.” This mid-life crisis, and his serious drinking, is not unnoticed by his parents. Ian and Elizabeth worry about them all. No matter the age of your children, you are always parents, always worried about their welfare.

The novel ends with the family once again at home together. We wish all of these children – young and old – well. We hope to see marriages restored, parents and children reconciled, and futures changed by a tragedy on a new path to happiness.

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