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On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming
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£16.99

Laura Cumming’s last book, The Vanishing Man, was a “fascinating art-history-cum-thriller” about a lost Velázquez portrait, said Catherine Taylor in The Daily Telegraph. Her new one is also a detective story of sorts, but this time it centres on a “90-year family mystery”. One autumn day in 1929, Cumming’s mother, Betty, then aged three, was abducted from a beach near her home in Lincolnshire. For five days, her parents, George and Veda, had no idea where she was; then she turned up in a neighbouring village, seemingly unharmed, but wearing a different dress. Betty herself had no memory of the abduction – but ten years later, she was approached by a middle-aged woman on a bus, who said: “Your grandmother wants to see you.”

Confused (she thought both her grandmothers were dead), Betty confronted her parents, who informed her that she’d been adopted. However, they refused to reveal who her biological parents were. A shutter went down, and the matter was never spoken of again. Betty (who is now in her 90s) resigned herself long ago to never discovering her parents’ true identity, said John Carey in The Sunday Times. But her daughter has not been so easily deterred. In On Chapel Sands, Cumming sets out to solve the mystery of her mother’s parentage – and succeeds in “enthralling” fashion. This “moving” book is about many things: the constrictions of family life; rural Lincolnshire in the early 20th century; the relationship between mothers and daughters. But it returns to one theme repeatedly: the importance of visual art. Betty studied art at university, and married an artist, James Cumming. Their daughter is The Observer’s art critic. And the journalistic and critical skills she has acquired help her to unravel the mystery: she hunts for clues in old family photos, and uses the paintings her mother loved to gain a better understanding of her story.

Another reason that this book succeeds is Cumming’s skill at withholding information, said Blake Morrison in The Guardian. The revelations keep coming right to the end, and many modify our view of the protagonists: Betty’s father, George, who at first is the “villain of the piece”, ends up appearing more sympathetic. The book would have benefited from a few “more jokes and madcap characters”, said Leaf Arbuthnot in The Times. And the narrative, at times, has a “meandering” quality. But it’s still a “beautifully written” account of events that “often seem stranger than fiction”.