If Only I Could Tell You by Hannah Beckerman - book review: Searingly honest and utterly absorbing

If Only I Could Tell You by Hannah Beckerman
If Only I Could Tell You by Hannah Beckerman

On a summer’s morning in 1988, something happened at the suburban home of Jess and Lily Siskin which tore apart the once close and loving sisters.

Twenty-eight years later, the rift is as wide as ever, but now their mother has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and she is determined to reunite her daughters – and her two granddaughters who barely know each other – before she dies.

Get ready to shed buckets of tears as author, journalist, and BBC Radio 2 book critic Hannah Beckerman pulls on our heartstrings in an exquisitely moving and beautiful novel about a broken and bruised family desperately trying to put itself back together again.

With a career in TV and film production and experience as a book prize judge, Beckerman knows all the ingredients for a good story and this tender, thought-provoking exploration of the corrosive effects of secrets, guilt and grief paints a powerful and poignant portrait of complex family relationships.

If Only I Could Tell You is an emotionally-charged and superbly crafted domestic drama that unwinds slowly from past to present in an illuminating sequence of pivotal moments and events which unearth the pain, the silence and the hidden truths which have fractured the Siskins over the course of three decades.

Years after that fateful morning in 1988 when her relationship with her 16-year-old sister Lily fell apart, Jess speculated that somehow she sensed what was happening, ‘an inexplicable sisterly intuition compelling her to investigate.’

The look on Lily’s face told ten-year-old Jess ‘something she doesn’t want to know’ and the fabric of their family life altered forever, repeating in her mind ‘like a record stuck under the groove of a needle.’

Fast forward to 2016 and their mother, Audrey, aged 62, has been told that she is dying from cancer and it has opened the floodgates on memories she has spent decades trying to forget. Over and over again, she has asked herself what she could have done to change the course of her daughters’ relationship.

There has never been an answer and now she has two daughters who never speak and two 17-year-old granddaughters, Mia and Phoebe, born just six weeks apart, who are not allowed to contact each other.

Ironically, the secret that splintered the family all those years ago is also the one thing that keeps them connected and as tensions reach breaking point, the irrevocable choice that one of them made all those years ago is about to surface.

Audrey is determined to uncover the cause of Jess’s animosity towards Lily because it’s her last chance to unite her family before she dies…

For all its emotional intensity and heartbreaking themes, Beckerman’s compelling, compassionate novel delivers ultimately life-affirming and uplifting messages with eloquence, elegance and an acute understanding of the delicate but unbreakable bonds of family.

The dark and destructive secrets at the heart of the story ripple through the pages and down the years, gathering momentum and suspense as Audrey’s life shortens and her hopes that Jess and Lily will finally be reconciled seem a lost cause.

The narratives of the three women at the heart of If Only I Could Tell You are the dynamic driving force as the mystery of the past is revealed in a jaw-dropping twist which will leave readers marvelling at the author’s ability to create such a wonderfully emotive, unique and multi-layered plot.

Searingly honest and utterly absorbing, this is storytelling at its best…

(Orion, hardback, £14.99)