It’s 1988 and David Weller is in love. An American student at the University of Sussex, David takes a job caring for a quadriplegic in order to extend his time abroad. And so David becomes entangled with the Bromwell family, Hans (the patient), his sister Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s daughter, Cristina.
There are two storylines here: David’s and his haphazard relationship with his girlfriend, his personal reasons for not wanting to return home to the USA, and his growing friendships with the Bromwells.
Then there is the story of the Bromwells, a once wealthy and influential British family who have descended into poverty. Particularly there is Elizabeth’s story, which she tells to David and he learns about from reading the letters between Hans and Elizabeth.
Elizabeth’s story is the most interesting. As a young woman, while on holiday in Portugal, she meets and falls in love with and marries a Portuguese doctor. She joins him in his postings in Africa, following a war and a fading empire with a husband she hardly knows. The history of Portuguese colonialism in Africa is one I wasn’t greatly familiar with and the story sheds an interesting light on this portion of European and African history. Elizabeth is young and ignorant and so the reader learns of the situation along with her. There’s a lot of good tension as she and her husband are moved from place to place and the strain increases in their marriage. The tensions between them are a combination of their own issues and the outside issues of war and military life.
The problem here is that this story is apparently entirely being narrated by Elizabeth to David and that just isn’t believable. There are personal details that no middle-aged woman would share with a twenty-something man who works for her. There are details that Elizabeth couldn’t possibly know, such as the inner workings of her husband’s man. We are shown that their marriage is strained and they don’t speak openly together and yet Elizabeth knows exactly what he is doing and thinking at all times. The narration of these sections simply makes no sense.
To my mind, there’s an easy solution. David’s story and the parts of the novel set in the 1980s are just not as interesting. If this had been a book told by a third person narrator entirely focused on the story of Portugal’s colonies in Africa, it would have been much stronger overall. As it is, the book feels like Weisman tried to do too much and so forgot some key facts of narration.