“Why, when October comes round,” Virginia Woolf famously complained in her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” “do the publishers always fail to supply us with a masterpiece?” Of the incompetent writers of her day, she went on to remark, “their sincerity is desperate, and their courage tremendous; it is only that they do not know which to use, a fork or their fingers.” One might wonder if Mrs. Woolf would be surprised today to observe how grimly durable her complaints have proved; they are certainly no less pertinent now, and may even be pointed, ironically, toward this first attempt at fiction by her own great-niece, Henrietta Garnett.

Family Skeletons has three settings, all isolated and all travelogue-beautiful: an estate in Ireland called Malabay, a vaguely Swiss mountain clinic, and an island. The book supplies slightly more characters than...


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