I’m not a professional writer, so I don’t know what it feels like to write a novel and agonize over every word, each chapter, and the final product. One thing that I wonder about though is just how much attention some authors put into the first few pages. I’ve noticed that Hard Case Crime titles, for example tend to be page one attention grabbers. And this brings me to Amanda Craig’s novel In a Dark Wood. The novel successfully grabbed my attention with its opening passages, and from that moment I was committed to the end. This was the first Craig novel for me, so I had no idea what to expect. I don’t want to give away too much of the book’s plot, but I will say that the author led me down the garden path, and I throughly enjoyed every minute of it.
The story is told through the eyes of Benedick Hunter, an unemployed actor who is on the brink of middle age. His wife, successful author Georgina, has taken the children and moved in with her lover. When the book begins, Benedick has sold the family home and is packing to leave. He is engaged in the gruesome, depressing task of separating his books from those that belong to Georgina. This is a perfect passage that will be fully understood by readers who’ve ever had to break up personal libraries. Books collected over the years represent a life spent together and to separate books into two piles feels like an amputation:
“I was trying to separate my possessions from those of my wife, Georgina. A biography in books, this is why some people scan your shelves, in the manner of a Roman seer gazing at entrails. There were duplicate editions of T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare, of Beckett, Pinter and Joyce. My own copies of Conrad, Dostoevsky, and Waugh jumbled up with her Austen, George Eliot and the Brontes–the male versus the female canon. The plays I had been in, with my parts underlined in lurid orange. Her university texts, with notes scribbled in pencil or biro. Then single volumes, signifying union: paperbacks stained with the oils of lost summers, whose cracked spines still released cascades of fine sand or faded blades of pale grass: hardbacks generously inscribed to mark birthdays or Christmas, passed from one to the other at bedtime as a preliminary to love; bound proofs of new books, battered ghosts of old ones. All of these, left for me to divide and put into boxes. She had taken the children’s books , as she had taken the children. We had been separated now for over a year, and were getting divorced.”
Sifting through the books, Benedick comes across North of Nowhere, one of several books of fairy tales written by his long-deceased mother, Laura. Although most of Laura’s books are now out of print, she has become, in death, a “minor cult figure” and a favourite with academics with a feminist bent. In spite of Laura’s slight celebrity, Benedick knows remarkably little about his mother. She committed suicide when he was a small child, and he has no memories of her whatsoever.
Following the sale of the house, Benedick moves in with Ruth, the mother of one of his long-time childhood friends. Benedick indulges in days spent in self-pitying mode, and with a good amount of time on his hands, he begins to ask questions about his American mother. Those who knew Laura have only the sketchiest details of her life before she arrived in London. Benedick meets various people who were connected with his mother in some way, and their memories evoke a different world–the world of 1960s London. But instead of finding answers, Benedick uncovers contrasting, fragmented memories of Laura. Some people loved her and considered her extremely talented; others disliked Laura, and instead of a solid image of Laura emerging, it seems that she was a complex woman no one really understood. Benedick’s father, the bombastic Howard, now remarried, doesn’t want to discuss his long dead wife, and squashes any discussion of the past.
As the novel develops, Benedick gradually unravels. Aggressively pursed by single, desperate women, unable to get another acting role, and pressured by Georgina to take the children, Benedick finds that instead of getting over the divorce, he’s much less able to cope. Turning increasingly to his mother’s stories,which are weaved into the plot, he feels compelled to uncover the mystery of Laura’s death.
Bitterly funny in spots, the peevish Benedick (called Dick Hunter by some), is too busy wallowing in self-pity to realise that he has a problem. Everything wrong in his life is someone else’s fault–from his failed auditions, and his feeble attempts at fatherhood, to his soured marriage–someone else is always to blame:
“Just before she left me, she had been writing a column about her life, in which I featured largely as a neurotic layabout who spent all our money on absurdities and left her to cope with the ensuing disaster.”
While on one level the book is the tale of one man’s disaster of a life, on another level, Craig effectively creates a subtle, dark, and slightly twisted modern day fairy tale with Benedick as the unlikely, sometimes nasty protagonist whose quest is to uncover the truth about his mother. But that said, don’t underestimate this excellent novel….
Using the male-point-of-view, Craig very capably creates the world through Benedick’s eyes, and this is rather curious as in many ways Craig’s subject matter reminds me of Fay Weldon. Craig, however, is definitely a post-Weldon author. In A Dark Wood is reminiscent of the best of Weldon but without the between-the-sexes savagery and customary male bashing. While Benedick’s parents, Howard & Laura, could easily slip into the plot of a Weldon novel with its themes of infidelity, feminism, gender inequality, and the battles between the sexes, Benedick is absolutely a post-Weldon, post-feminist creation– a man who’s overwhelmed by his children and who battles with a sense of failure while shamed by his wife’s success.