Book review - How to Measure a Cow

Tara Fraser has a chequered history and after a man recognises her in a public park – “Are you her...that bitch?” – decides to leave London with a new identity. Sarah Scott, as she is now known, chooses her destination by sticking a pin in a map of the British Isles and ends up in a small Cumbrian town with a job in a factory. She keeps herself to herself except an elderly neighbour, Nancy Armstrong, wants to get to know the solitary, rather drab, woman living opposite her. Tara is also surprised when old friends from down south try to become reacquainted – after all, she has destroyed a promising career, her marriage and served time in prison. Tara is invited to a reunion – “a link to a life left behind, but still hers” – and has to decide whether to revisit the past or leave it well alone.

How to Measure a Cow explores many of Margaret Forster’s recurring themes – female friendship, the weight of the past, betrayal, secrets and lies – and nuanced characters drive the plot. Forster drip feeds details of Tara’s troubled past and her shortcomings, before disclosing her “crime”. Many of her defining traits are revealed through the casual observations of others. Tara was fostered, we learn, and had a difficult relationship with her adoptive parents. She respected her father but was cold with her mother. At school she was rebellious and something of a loner. Her three female friends, Claire, Molly and Liz, only accepted her in their gang after Tara heroically jumped into a canal to rescue a young boy from drowning.

Tara is clearly a mass of contradictions but Forster is interested in her flaws rather than her qualities. Through a series of anecdotes, some from Tara, others courtesy of her friends, we discover that she is “hyper and volatile… not trustworthy... cunning… unpredictable… selfish.”  Sometimes, her friends’ comments tell us as much about them: “Tara embroidered ordinary events so that in her accounts they became colourful and dramatic when really there’d been no drama.” Or they remain baffled: “she painted herself as a cheat when they knew she had not cheated.”  Tara has a “need to be mysterious” and as she herself acknowledges “she’d always been able to turn on tears easily”. Despite her faults, it is some measure of Forster’s skill that Tara retains our sympathy. Her main foil is another formidable creation: Nancy, a native Cumbrian, and farmer’s daughter, who knows how to measure a cow. She is cautious, suspicious, insatiably curious and loathe to reveal her thoughts.

It is fitting that Forster’s swansong, published posthumously, is set partly in Cumbria, where she was born and spent her final years. Her simple, direct prose never strikes a false note.

A shorter version of this review was published by the Independent on Sunday