“How to Measure a Cow” by Margaret Forster – a novel about reinventing yourself

How to Measure a Cow is Margaret Forster’s final novel before her death. Sadly, it is not her best. I love this author’s non-fiction writing (see my review of Hidden Lives here and my review of her biography here) but I find my reactions to her fiction vary. I felt that this book was not as good as it could be although I did enjoy some of it and definitely consider the title to be one of the best I’ve seen for a while.

Tara comes to live in Cumbria. It is miles away from her previous home and she has changed her name. She is trying to go unnoticed and to blend in but she doesn’t find it easy and as the book progresses she resumes her original name and her old way of life and attitudes. We realise very early on in the book that she is hiding something but we only fully understand what happened before the start as the story progresses.

Across the street lives Nancy who is an older woman. Nancy is set in her ways and sure about a lot of things although she is obviously very lonely whilst denying this to herself and others. The two develop a strange relationship consisting of curiosity on both sides and a mutual loneliness. As Tara reverts to being Sarah and meets again with her old friends the tentative friendship cannot continue.

Tara/Sarah is a user and a fantasist. She has no remorse for what has happened in the past and she is not slow in using other people’s guilt to her own advantage. She has survived some awful things but she doesn’t make life easy for those around her. Nancy is a more sympathetic character but she is stuck in her street in Cumbria and she cannot move on. There is no really satisfying ending.

The author knows how to craft a novel and how to write an effective book but I didn’t really enjoy this one although I think that her descriptions of Cumbria were excellent and accurate. If you are reading this author for the first time and want to try her fiction I recommend Private Papers. Diary of an Ordinary Woman and Keeping the World Away.

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