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Review: Family Money by Nina Bawden – the value of family

Cover of Family Money, a novel by Nina Bawden

Family Money proved to be a far more rewarding reading experience than my last encounter with a Nina Bawden novel. The Ice House was so disappointing I wasn’t sure I wanted to read another novel by this author but Family Money has restored my interest.

With its references to under-funded health services in the UK and property prices rising far beyond the reach of low paid workers, the novel has a very contemporary feel. Layer on a theme about independence in old age and you have a fascinating novel about families and the rights to inherited wealth.

Family Money homes in on Fanny Pye, a well-provisioned widow who, though she is getting on in years, is in good health and self sufficient both physically and intellectually. Her children think it’s time she sold up and moved out of her large Georgian-style house to somewhere  “easier to manage” .

Fanny ignores their hints. She values her independence; her solo trips to the cinema; the chance to browse among antique shops and buy her groceries at a neighbourhood market. She has no intention of becoming one of those old women who want nothing more than “a nice little bungalow at the seaside” or ” a little cottage in the country with a thatched roof.”

A Life Disrupted

All that changes one evening when she becomes the sole witness of a savage attack. Fanny tries to stop the three young men she sees beating another man senseless, is knocked unconscious and ends up in hospital. Fortunately she’s not seriously hurt but is increasingly worried that she can’t recall details of the attack.

Never previously a nervous woman, one unexpected flash of memory triggers an unsettling feeling that she may be in danger. The young man who lives in a canal boat at the rear of her house is oddly familiar. Each time she encounters him, she’s left more and more nervous. Soon she’s afraid to go out. Each time she ventures beyond her front door, she suffers a panic attack.

She was quite unprepared for the force of the panic that struck her in the street market. One moment she was happily strolling, rejoicing in her new freedom to walk abroad, to be part of the Christmas crowd, to enjoy the coloured lights and the glitter, the next she was pole-axed with terror.

The ‘mystery/thriller’ element isn’t the driving force for the novel however; it’s simply a device to illustrate how Fanny’s character, and her life is changed by one incident. For Family Money is fundamentally a character study that uses irony and humour to point out truths about people’s attitudes to the challenges of advancing years.

Fanny’s children and their privileged friends are Bawden’s main targets. Her ear for the nuances of dialogue perfectly catch the tone of these people with their self pitying tones, pre-occupations with money and condescending attitudes towards people lower down the social order.

Conversations between Fanny’s daughter and son and their respective partners are particularly amusing. They are delighted to learn after Fanny’s accident that she does after all plan to sell the house. It’s really the most sensible solution, they agree. It’s not safe for her with all those stairs.

But it comes as a shock when they learn what Fanny plans to do with the proceeds of the sale. Giving a large sum to a former neighbour/come housekeeper is not what these children had in mind at all.

This is “family money” after all; bought for a pittance by their diplomat father when it was considered a “slum property” but now this area of London has been “yuppified” it’s worth close on half a million pounds. It’s money that should be kept within the family and even if they don’t need it all themselves, there are the grand-children whose future needs Fanny should not ignore.

Compassion For The Older Woman

Bawden’s compassion is reserved for Fanny. This woman has felt throughout her life that she’s been treated as “second fiddle”, first by her more intellectual sister (now an outspoken socialist baroness) and then by her husband Daniel. Now it’s her children who think they can make decisions for her; taking no account that she has opinions of her own.

Although the ending of the novel is inconclusive – it leaves us up in the air quite literally – it does show how Fanny shakes off these constraints and is able to conquer her fears. It would be pleasing to think she is about to embark on a new, more independent phase of her life, but we can’t be sure this is the case.

I’m wondering whether Bowen’s compassion for Fanny is the reason why I thought Family Money a more effective novel than The Ice House. It was written when Bawden was close in age to Fanny so it could be that she had more of an affinity with the world of the mature woman than that of the young wives she featured in The Ice House. 

An amusing novel, but one that raises valid questions about attitudes towards women as they advance in age. It has a lot of similarities with All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West in the way it shows how women in their twilight years become subjected to the designs of well-meaning friends and relatives and have their own wishes ignored or dismissed.

Family Money by Nina Bawden: Footnotes

Nina Bawden enjoyed success as an author of fiction for adults and children. She was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1987 with Circles of Deceit and the Lost Man Booker Prize in 2010 with The Birds On The Trees. She is one of very few authors to have both served as a Booker judge and had one of their own books shortlisted. Her most celebrated book for children –Carrie’s War – was based in her own experiences as an evacuee to Wales during World War 2.

I’m counting this as book number 5 towards my #TBR21 which is an attempt to read 21 books from my owned-but-unread bookshelves by the end of 2021.

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