Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
How to Measure a Cow by Margaret Forster. Chatto and Windus. £16.99
She leaves London for Workington, having stuck a hairpin in a map. It was a matter of indifference, of wanting to disappear, to become a non-self. The name itself seemed to make it "a working town, honest, straightforward" and she could be lost in Number Eighteen, "one of a long, tight-fitting terrace of squashed houses", the door, unpainted for many years, "a brown colour almost as dark as the blackened bricks either side". Who was she now? Her name was "Sarah Scott". She was 43 years of age. She weighed 9 stone 4 pounds and she was 5ft 6ins. Otherwise, taking an early bus-ride to routine mindless work and returning to that cold house with nothing of her own, she might achieve anonymity, she might shut out the past, forget who she was.
Her life was nothing. She knew no-one and was known by no-one save the old woman, Nancy Armstrong. Nancy had watched her from behind a twitching curtain when she first came and step by reserved step their acquaintanceship had developed.
Sarah has had a past, a rebellious past, a troubled past. It is a past to be obliterated. She had known people and friends and passion. She had experienced love and hatred. She had felt the bitterest resentment and the fiercest anger. She had been a heroine and she had been swallowed by despair. It was a past to be totally forgotten, removed from her mind, removed from her life.
This is a novel which may appear to engage in stereotypes of character and setting. Its back story, which is eventually revealed as the novel reaches its conclusion, is conventional. But it is not stereotypes, but the very absence of individuality which Margaret Forster is exploring. One can't disappear.
"Sarah Scott" can't lose herself. Nancy Armstrong can't be just an old lady behind a twitching curtain. Reserve and reticence give way to a polite acquaintance which never approaches friendship.
Sarah takes Nancy for a ride in her car along the Cumbrian coast past Sellafield. In a moment of revelation, Nancy tells Sarah how to measure a cow from the shoulder to the second joint on the tail, and “Multiply five times the length by 21 to get the weight.” Nancy becomes a person. She has said nothing of her earlier life, of her widowhood or her childhood on a west Cumberland farm, but that one passing remark reveals an unspoken life.
Sarah realises that she can't disappear, become nothing, be anonymous. "Sarah Scott" is a false name. She must find herself. She must become Tara Fraser again. She must recover not cover her past. Tara Fraser "had wasted time, trying to eradicate herself and turn into another woman when what she should have done, what she was now going to do, was be herself, but a better self".
Margaret Forster from the most muted of beginnings builds the drama of self-discovery. The reader is held by the process of slow revelation as Tara Fraser emerges and we come to understand the abdication involved in that longing for nothingness.
It is an austere novel written in the sparest of precise prose and all the more powerful because Margaret Forster appreciates the virtues of simplicity, honesty and reticence. In her last book, My Life in Houses, Margaret Forster wrote the most intimate of reticent autobiographies. The life was understood by what was understated, by what was left unsaid.
This, her last novel published immediately after her death, stands as a companion to that moving and beautiful book.
"How to Measure a Cow" completes a body of work which places Margaret Forster among the finest of modern novelists.