“Sensitive people always make me see red. They just mean that want special privileges, emotionally speaking.”
In Celia Fremlin’s engaging, and frequently witty, mystery novel, Possession, 19-year-old Sarah Erskine has a history of loser boyfriends. Is she one of those forgiving types or does she just have poor judgement? Well the jury is out on that question, but when Sarah announces that she’s marrying her latest, Mervyn, a 31-year-old accountant who lives with his mummy, Sarah’s mother, Clare, the novel’s spiky narrator, has mixed feelings. On one hand, he’s so much older than Sarah. Then there’s that red flag: still living with mummy… but he does have a decent job and seems the reliable type. This is a clever, multi-layered novel which examines parenthood, the difficulties of remaining clear-eyed about one’s children, and the responsibility parents have towards children. At what point should parents ‘let go’ of their children and watch them make their mistakes? What the hell do you do when a precious child decides to marry a weirdo? Possession has a wonderful gossipy quality, and this is firmly established on page one when Clare’s best friend, Peggy, “always ready to enjoy a crisis,” warns that Mervyn’s possessive mother is “ghastly.”
“You’ve spoilt it all for me,” I complained childishly. “Why did you have to tell me? It’s nothing to do with Sarah, either. She doesn’t have to like her mother-in-law, does she? Nobody does! It’s unnatural.”
Clare is determined to accept Mervyn and overlook any ‘difficulties’ in the match, and while she has major misgivings about Meryvn (still sight unseen at this point) she is determined not to let these doubts surface in front of her younger daughter, Janice, friends and neighbours. Not a brilliant idea then when Clare organizes a party, inviting friends neighbours and relatives, to meet Mervyn. But Mervyn doesn’t show as it “meant leaving his mother on her own.” When Sarah finally brings Mervyn home to meet the family, Clare sets eyes on him and feels “dismay.” But she’s determined to put a brave face on it and focuses on the positive–but apart from the premature balding and not being very attractive, it’s Mervyn’s manner with Sarah that is disconcerting. He infantilizes and patronizes Sarah, and she responds with nauseating “faked idiocy.” Their relationship dynamic makes the age gap stand out in neon.
I began to feel uneasy. Was this to be the pattern of their married life: she acting the part of the silly little girl in order to feed his masculine vanity? Having–perhaps deliberately–chosen a woman so much younger than himself, was he now determined to make sure that she was also sillier?
While Clare has reservations about the match, her feelings become much more confused after meeting Mervyn’s mother:
Our eyes met: we weighed each other up, Mrs. Redmayne and I, like two generals on the eve of battle. On my side were young love, common sense, and popular psychology; on hers I could see nothing but the dank and cloying weapon of emotional blackmail. I thought that there could be only one outcome: I imagined, then, that popular psychology was always bound to win. I did not know, then, how strange would be the terrain over which we would be fighting; how I would soon be stumbling, blind and mapless, into a lurid, unimaginable landscape within which she would be dreadfully horribly, at home.
The plot thickens when Clare learns some ugly things about Mervyn’s past.
Clare is first and foremost a parent, and author Celia Fremlin places Clare firmly in the midst of other parents–all of them with problem children. Some parents brag how great their kids are, but in this book, the focus is the opposite. Clare’s friend Liz moans about her kids:
Not that it matters, when one of them never looks in the mirror at all, and the other spends the whole of her ample allowance on making herself look like the cheapest little tart that ever crawled out from under a hair dryer.
There’s talk of arranged marriages as a less-worrisome alternative to free choice, and then dowries enter the discussion with one mother concluding “there’s no one, now, whom you could pay to take your daughter away at eighteen.” One mother, Liz, had 3 brilliant sons, and she used to lord it over the other women in the neighborhood. Oh be careful who you step on on the way up–you’ll pass them on the way back down, and this is true of Liz whose sons all dropped out of school, all moved back home dragging along a caravan of itinerant girlfriends. Liz and her husband have been shoved into a corner of their own home as their unreasonable sons take over; she wistfully says “But when we used to swear we’d never interfere with the boys’ leading their own lives, it never occurred to us that they’d be leading them here!” There’s a marvellous mischievous sense of humour here residing in “the Failed Parents’ Association.”
I knew why, of course, I was being welcomed back into the Failed Parents’ Association, in which poor Liz had been languishing for so long. I knew she would be delighted to have me; we are fond of each other, Liz and I, and she longs to tell me about her problems; but how could she while Sarah and Janice were doing so well and causing no trouble? But now, with Sarah newly jilted and Janice a black thundercloud of mysterious teen-age obstructiveness, she could seize her chance and tell me all about Giles, Pete and Tony. The borrowed money, the chucked jobs, the never-ending breakfast time that goes on in her kitchen like a Mad Hatter’s tea party throughout the daylight hours–all this could now be revealed without reserve; it could fairly be swapped for Sarah’s humiliation and Janice’s bad temper. I saw her point. Indeed–and this is the final, unmistakable sign of having joined the club once more– I felt the same myself. I longed for the comfort of her troubles just as she longed for the comfort of mine; within minutes, it was arranged that I should come straight around.
Celia Fremlin’s tremendous talent lies in her ability to take a mundane situation, a daughter bringing home a boyfriend the mother doesn’t like, and infuse it with horror. The very pedestrian nature of the Erskines’ life make the ‘Mervyn situation’ plausible. No doubt most of us have dealt with the boyfriend/girlfriend of various family members and we have to sit there smiling politely when we really just want to throttle them and throw them out the door. Children grow old enough to make their own choices: good or bad. How much should we intervene? And if we don’t intervene, we live with the shared consequences until we decide otherwise.
And yet it has a fascination of its own, this underworld of parenthood. You can confess to fellow members disasters which you would never dream of admitting to the outside world, and after a while you begin almost to feel, like a bizarre kind of elite with your own secrets, you own special rites and customs. You become adept at recognizing potential fellow sufferers in all sorts of places: in the street, at school medical inspections, at meetings of the parent-teacher association. There is a sort of brightness about these doomed people, an unnatural eagerness to talk about your children instead of their own. The apparently innocent questions they put to you vibrate like an electric drill as they probe desperately to find out if you, too, have Backward Reader or a delinquent fifth-former.