Book Review: Faithless by Alice Nelson

About the Book:

Set between India and England, Faithless is the story of Cressida, a writer and translator, and her consuming love for Max, an enigmatic older writer – and married man.

Cressida’s passion for Max engulfs her from the first giddy rush of sensation when she meets him in the mountains of southern India. It is a desire so potent it delivers great stunning blows to her heart. And yet she can share it with almost no one.

Then Cressida meets Leo, and she is forced to choose: between a life of passion or a desire for some peace of mind; between her romantic idealism and the possibility of a steadier, attainable happiness.

As the years unfold with both these men, a fragile young child, Flora, also finds her way into Cressida’s life and heart, and it is Flora who forces Cressida to confront her own capacity for love and deception, and to accept the compromises life forces on us.

Faithless is a passionate love story and a profound reflection on the nuances of attachment, the nature of desire, the different connections and relationships that sustain us, and the ways that we deceive ourselves and others in the hope that, finally, we can reach stumblingly towards one another.

Published by Penguin Random House Australia

Released August 2022

My Thoughts:

It’s such a marvellous thing to get lost within the pages of a beautiful novel. Four years ago, I read The Children’s House by Alice Nelson, such an exquisite novel that I absolutely adored. Here now, is her latest release, Faithless, one that I actually bought based on the cover and only realised once I got home that it had been written by THAT Alice Nelson, the one whose work I adore, and it bypassed the tbr shelf and went straight to the table beside my reading chair. I am disappointed though that this novel has not received much pre-release (or post-release) publicity. Until I saw it on the shelves at Big W, I hadn’t even heard a whisper about it, nor have I seen anything since. The cover is of course attention grabbing, with the trend of the fed-up woman depicted, but this story is very different to what we’ve come to expect from the novels these covers grace. There is no humour, this is character driven literary fiction, a cascade of introspection that meanders through the decades in a reflective and non-linear fashion. My favourite sort of literary fiction.

“I had always conceived myself as vastly different to my mother, but I began to wonder whether we were so far apart, after all. Stupefied by a hope that would never be realised. How easily I too had accepted a lesser life. All these women waiting. My mother, wasting so many years of her life believing my father would leave Delia. Delia herself, waiting for my father to reform himself and give up my mother.”

Cressida is the child of a relationship that was a long-term affair, and from the age of eighteen, she too becomes ‘the other woman’. I’m generally not a fan of stories about women who have affairs with married men, and yet, I found myself completely drawn into Cressida’s story, and also drawn to her. The narrative is written in the style where Cressida is telling her story to Max, her lover, who has recently passed away. She has fled to the coastal village where he lived with his wife and daughter, grieving, reminiscing, accompanied by a seven year old girl named Flora, who is traumatised and connected to Cressida in a way that we become privy to only as the story progresses. This is Cressida’s second loss inside a year, with her husband Leo passing after a long battle with illness twelve months previous. In between the reminiscing, we witness Cressida’s struggles with Flora, a child who has suffered significantly in unknown ways. These sections are raw and heartfelt, you can feel Cressida’s love for Flora, her attempts to put the little girl at ease and offer her comfort, while swallowing down immense guilt for abandoning her and not knowing what she has been subjected to in the intervening years.

“We forgive everything of a lover, Michael Ondaatje writes. We forgive selfishness, desire, guile – as long as we are the motive for it. But can we forgive these things of ourselves? Deceit, disloyalty, slyness. How fluently I learned to lie, Max, how easily lie after lie spilled out of my lips as if I had mastered a foreign language, or a complicated piano concerto. How easily, in the end, we let go of the things we once held as truths about ourselves. But perhaps we never move past who we essentially are. It’s a kind of wishfulness to imagine that somehow at our cores we are better people than those we turn out to be. That we are merely bent sideways by the burden of our circumstances. Perhaps our childhoods bred us for duplicity, for secrets, perhaps it is something that trickled down to our very essences.”

As much as this is a love story, it is also a story about literature, writing it, reading it, quoting it, living by it. A book about books, if you like. I’m always drawn in by that. Cressida is a writer, so too is Max, this forms the basis of their initial attraction. But they are also readers and that forms a basis of connection between them as well, a shared basis of communication whereby they speak and write to each other in poetry and passages from novels. Even with Flora, there is a literary connection between her and Cressida, a story book she remembers from her early childhood that Cressida used to read to her, and this shared literary memory becomes a building block for their tentative relationship. Indeed, by the end of the novel, we see that the greatest love story of Cressida’s life is still to come, that between her and Flora.

I fell in love with Alice Nelson’s writing in The Children’s House and my adoration bears no abating with Faithless. She is one of my favourite authors, a writer of such piercingly beautiful prose with a depth of honesty and raw feeling that is all too rare. If you are looking for a novel to get lost in, then Faithless needs to go onto your reading pile. Highly recommended for lovers of literature, love stories, and literary fiction.

Book 12 in my 22 in 2022 challenge.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Faithless by Alice Nelson

  1. Another great review – you’re on a roll! There’s so much here I would love to chat to you about. I must admit to passing by this book *because* of the cover (I’m not a fan of the fed-up woman cover trend) so I’ll be sure to look again. I’ve not heard of this author before, and I’m on the hunt for good writers with backlists I’ve missed. xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t mind the fed-up woman cover but in this case, it doesn’t match the story. I think you’d really love this one as well as The Children’s House.
      And I am on a roll, yes, that’s three brilliant reads in a row. I’m almost nervous to start another book, it has a lot to live up to!
      Feel free to message me to chat about it!


  2. I see what you say about “not much pre-release (or post-release) publicity”.
    I’ve read The Children’s House too, and After This, which for me makes Nelson a writer to watch out for. I probably did receive an email about this being a ‘forthcoming book’ but I suspect that the promo I read was the same as the blurb at Goodreads because I decided that it was just another ‘love and deception story with grief’ and decided not to bother. I was disappointed, but I get it when an author goes commercial because that’s what sells.
    But when you write “As much as this is a love story, it is also a story about literature, writing it, reading it, quoting it, living by it. A book about books, if you like” I’m in, instantly!
    BTW Have you seen the new layout at Goodreads? The Home Page seems to be the same, but the book page is *awful*! I can’t imagine how people will read it on a phone because it’s got huge fonts (as if it’s designed for beginner readers) and everything is surrounded by a lot of empty space. What’s most annoying is that you have to scroll way down to get to the reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I use the Goodreads app on my phone and nothing looks different there, but I’ll have a look next time I’m on my computer.
      I definitely did not get an email about this one, nor did I see it any publicity round up. I’m quite annoyed, literary novels like this one are more appealing to me than many they email about or send out unsolicited. It is a love and deception story with grief thrown in but it’s so much more and it’s not a wallowing in grief story, if you know what I mean. She’s grieving, yes, but it’s more giving her the motivation to reflect, and the distraction of caring for a traumatised child means her grief has to take a backseat. Plus, Nelson is Nelson and she’s just brilliant. I’d be interested in your opinion on this one.


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