ONE TO WATCH OUT FOR: How to Measure a Cow by Margaret Forster

Article published on February 23, 2016.

Margaret Forster writes the most amazing prose, tight without a superfluous word and still with the ability to convey crystal clear images to the reader.   From the first page it is apparent that something dreadful has occurred in the life of Tara Fraser. So shocking an event that she must wipe out the past and begin another life under a new name, Sarah Scott.

Sticking a pin in a map she chooses to move to a small Cumbrian town called Workington. The name appeals to her with its connotations of hard work and honesty.

From an outgoing, vivacious, almost wild girl she retreats behind anonymity, almost a recluse, living quietly without drawing attention to herself.   But this secretive life arouses the curiosity of her older neighbour, Nancy, who is determined to break down the invisible barriers with which Sarah is surrounded and obsesses about her self effacing neighbour making it her mission to be her friend.

There is little dialogue in this character led novel apart from scenes between the two women which are so well drawn and amusing.   Nancy’s less than subtle attempts to find out more about Sara contrast beautifully with Sarah’s attempts to give nothing away. Both women believe they are in control, Nancy with the information she is discovering and Sarah retaining her secret.

Is it possible to shut the door behind a previous life, change your identity, demeanour and appearance and move on without a backward glance? Do you become a new person or under the facade are you still the same?

Sarah is struggling. The increasing pressure from Nancy and an unexpected invitation from former friends who previously let her down, tempts her to go back to being Tara, however briefly.

The novel is beautifully written with a steady paced plot that gripped me from the very start. This author has been adept at exposing the emotions and character traits of women.   Here she weaves loyalty, betrayal, friendship, honour and honesty with wonderful characterisation into an absorbing story. Readers will identify with many of the dilemmas facing this cast of women, none of whom is a very attractive personality.

I am privileged to have had this book to review but sad that due to her recent death it will [probably] be the last book from this wonderful writer.

Sheila A. Grant

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How to Measure a Cow by Margaret Forster
Chatto & Windus 978-1-784-74066-5 hbk Mar 2016

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