Published online by Cambridge University Press: 20 December 2017
If the twenty-first-century British novel follows Maggie O'Farrell's lead, it will include family dramas of psychological depth and feminist interest. Far removed from post-postmodernist reflexivity and historical revisionism, O'Farrell's six novels bring an updated psychological realism to bear on the tangled lives of contemporary British characters. The novels function as mysteries in which a present event sends the protagonist on a quest, often interior and reflective; the answer lies in the past, where a hidden or frustrated passion has thwarted the protagonist's (sometimes an entire family's) self-knowledge and acceptance. Feminist in their focus on women, the novels take a psychological rather than programmatic approach to women's issues and therefore approach gender with complex understanding. They suggest that twenty-first-century feminist fiction may present a subtle sympathy for men and women limited by outdated but powerful traditions. Realist rather than postmodernist in their assurance that secret histories can be uncovered, understood and survived, the novels sometimes reference national history, but their interest lies in personal histories of love, lust, courage and betrayal. O'Farrell's record of positive reviews, literary prizes and healthy sales suggests that twenty-first-century readers remain interested in realist human narratives.
In the six novels she has published since 2000, O'Farrell focuses on protagonists caught between past and present, plunged into extreme states where secret histories emerge, and struggling against the obscure residue of a repressed past. The novels explore secrets kept through decades in troubled families, warping relationships and turning unconventional protagonists into detectives ransacking the familial and cultural past. The novels often focus on female characters, but they also develop complex and interesting male characters. Sophisticated literary mysteries invoking tradition with an innovational edge, the novels update fictional conventions in complex, layered plots that, as one reviewer put it, ‘appeal to a broad audience, but they're also smart and provocative’. O'Farrell's transformative twenty-first-century sensibility explores contemporary characters’ efforts to develop creative responses to histories that isolate them and to legacies of family secrecy and shame.