In Caroline Blackwood’s slim novel Great Granny Webster (NYRB), set in Britain in the 1940s, a teenage girl is sent to live with her great-grandmother in a lifeless Victorian mansion near Brighton. Sea air has been recommended for her anemia, but the girl, who is never named, rarely gulps fresh air or fresh anything else in Granny’s cold, sterile house. Still, she is curious about the old woman’s apparent determination to be miserable. After she recovers, she questions relatives and family friends in hopes of coming to understand the forbidding Great Granny Webster. With sympathy, Blackwood uncovers a family tree of female despair: the ethereal grandmother Dunmartin, institutionalized when she turns violent; the fabulously social Aunt Lavinia, who doesn’t want her suicidal angst to spoil the party; and the thoroughly unpleasant matriarch, forever gloomy in a hard-backed chair. The prose is spare, inviting and playful. Blackwood was criticized for the obvious autobiographical element of this novel when it was first published in 1977, but her unusual style and sharp powers of observation make Great Granny Webster a compelling read.