Three sisters under pressure and the vagaries of love and marriage are under examination in Celia Fremlin’s novel, Uncle Paul. Meg is the main character here, and when the novel opens, she receives a telegram from her sister Isabel regarding their older half-sister, Mildred. Isabel is on holiday in Southcliffe with her new-ish husband and her sons from a previous marriage. Mildred, the most troubled sister of the three, is also on holiday, but in Mildred’s case, she’s left her current husband (yet again) and Isabel is worried.
So it’s Meg to the rescue, but first she asks for advice from her boyfriend Freddie (an Oscar Wilde-ish character who lounges around in a scarlet silk dressing gown and who is the book’s greatest character):
“Quarrel with them,” came the instructions down the wire, decisively. “It’s the only way with families. Quarrel with them now, while you’re still young. If you leave it till you’re older, you’ll find that you owe them all so much money that you can’t afford to. So quarrel, girl, quarrel for your life! And then come round and have a drink. In about half an hour.”
Meg packs up and goes to join Isabel at the seaside. Isabel and her sons are holed up in the grotty family caravan, and Isabel’s hubbie…. well he’s nowhere in sight.
As for Mildred, she booked a holiday rental, a remote cottage which happens to be the same place she stayed 15 years earlier on her honeymoon with Uncle Paul. But the honeymoon went horribly wrong. Paul went to prison, and Mildred went on with her life. Staying at the cottage again brings back painful memories for Mildred, but there’s something else afoot. Has Paul returned and does he seek revenge?
Uncle Paul is a slow burn novel with fear, suspicion and hysteria built slowly, so don’t expect a page-turner. Meg is the sensible, most solid sister, Isabel is scattered and nervous, and Mildred, with her tendency towards drama and self-involvement, is the most unstable of the three. At first, Meg dismisses Mildred’s concerns as yet another play for attention, but after spending a night in the cottage, Meg has cause for alarm.
Author Celia Fremlin juxtaposes the simple, sometimes tedious activities of the day (sitting in the hotel with other guests and playing on the sand with the children) with the nameless fear that awaits in the night. The plot emphasizes how suspicion can undermine even the strongest bonds, and that concern can easily grow into hysteria. There are so many weird things going on in the lives of these sisters; Isabel seems overly anxious about her husband’s imminent arrival, and Meg even begins to question who Freddie really is.
Uncle Paul, a Woman in Peril novel, is a precursor to the extremely popular Domestic Thrillers of today–the books where wives start to question who their husbands really are. Uncle Paul’s strength is its characterizations. I was impressed by how women dominant this story, and how the men, for the most part, are almost entirely absent. There’s some wonderful humour here especially when author Celia Fremlin dabbles with hotel life, the precocious child Cedric and the dapper Captain Cockerill.
I’ll be reading more from this author.