Book Review: Alice Nelson translates familiar territory into Faithless

In Unfaithfulby Alice Nelson third novel, we follow Cressida as she writes a letter to her former lover, Max, analyzing the psychology of their relationship. Born the daughter of Lord Farley and her mistress, Cressida and her brother Lucian are part of an unknown second family. They share an idyllic childhood in India, growing up on a large estate, but after their father’s death it becomes more difficult for Cressida’s mother to maintain her estate. As a solution, she opens a hotel, and as a result, a 20-year-old Cressida meets Max, who is a few years her senior and already a successful writer.

Destined to follow in her mother’s footsteps, Cressida enjoys a passionate but dark relationship with Max, sharing him with her “real” family, whom she knows he will never leave. This relationship is the crux of her existence, and Cressida’s writing career is influenced by her complicated feelings about being the other woman.

Told in the style of a lengthy letter dictated to Max after her recent death, Cressida tells him about her life when they were apart, as well as what has happened to her since. She has become the caretaker of a young girl named Flora, who appears to have suffered some recent trauma. Whose daughter she is remains unclear for most of the book, but Cressida has a deep affection for her, and compares the different kinds of love and attachment she has felt for people throughout her life with this lens firmly in place. she.

As in Nelson’s other works, language takes center stage. Cressida’s work as a writer and translator and her friendships with other translators allow her to reflect on the limits of language; particularly when someone is trying to speak across experiences and continents, and even generations.

While the novel’s plot meanders at times, the prose is always beautiful and Cressida’s soothing voice speaks softly and evenly to the reader as if reading him a bedtime story. The novel is curiously detached, most of the action being told to the reader rather than shown, in a way that would make most teachers of creative writing recoil; but for this book it seems to work. Nelson is measured and consistent in her approach.

However, if you’ve approached this novel expecting an original take on the clichéd narrative of an older professor having an affair with his literate ingénue girl, be warned that you may be disappointed by what you find within the pages. Likewise, if you judged this book by its cover and were expecting “Sad Girl Lit” ala Pain and Bliss.

No, what you will find in Faithless is pure literary fiction of a kind that is sure to divide audiences. I for one, loved it, but I can see how other readers might find it infuriating. You’ll just have to give it a try to find out what camp you’re in. Try it if you liked it The Children’s House.


by Alice Nelson Unfaithful is now available through Penguin Books. Grab a copy from Booktopia HERE.

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