Tag Archives: British fiction

The Heights: Louise Candlish

Louise Candlish’s novel, The Heights, is a story of revenge told through several voices including a mother who lost her son in a senseless car accident. It’s the sort of book that causes readers to question how we would act in the same circumstances.

The story is mostly told by Ellen Saint, but there are also sections that are written by a journalist who is sitting in a writing class also attended by Ellen. Middle-aged Ellen Saint is married for the second time to Justin. They have a daughter together, Freya. Ellen, an interior designer, also has a son, Lucas, by her ex-husband, Vic. When the novel opens, Lucas is dead. He died in a horrible car accident in which his friend, Kieran, drove.

So here’s the backstory: Lucas attends an upscale school, Kieran, the product of a broken home is placed at the school by his foster mother, Prisca. Kieran, with a history of drug problems, learning difficulties, and rough edges riles Ellen immediately. She resents Kieran and his friendship with Lucas. To Ellen, Kieran leads Lucas astray; under Kieran’s influence, Lucas skips school, takes drugs, lies to his parents, and begins failing classes. So in other words, Kieran is every parents’ nightmare. Following Lucas’s death, Ellen is driven by only one thing: revenge.

As far as Ellen knows, when the novel opens, Kieran is dead and she begins with the statement.

It can’t be Kieran Watts, I tell myself. And if anyone can be sure of that it is me.

Because I’m the one who killed him.

Then why is Kieran alive and well in London? Or is Ellen, who has had other mistaken ‘sightings’ of Keiran in the past, wrong once again?

That’s enough of the plot…. It was hard to be in Ellen’s head. She is so full of hate and rage, that her mind is not a pleasant place. On one hand, since she lost her son due, rage is one option, but the majority of the novel dwells in this rage-filled place and it’s tiring. I had issues with Ellen almost immediately. There are indications that she’s a bit ‘off.’ The way she turns to her EX. The way Lucas is never at fault. … Anyway, this is a compulsive read–if only to get to the basic truths of this situation. I wish Ellen had been a bit more sympathetic.

Review copy.

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The Hearts and Lives of Men: Fay Weldon (1987)

In The Hearts and Lives of Men, author Fay Weldon examines human folly through the lives of the main characters: Clifford Wexford and Helen Lally. When the novel opens, it’s 1960s London. 35-year-old Clifford Wexford is an ambitious art dealer whose current lover, the sharp-edged, unpleasant Angie, a South African Heiress, is also the daughter of Clifford’s boss. Clifford attends a party with dried-up, bitter Angie, but leaves with luminous Helen Lally, the daughter of the temperamental artist and frame maker, John Lally. This is a story of marriage, adultery, Art and greed, played out through the tumultuous relationship between Clifford and Helen.

At first, all is well between Clifford and Helen, but with Angie’s machinations, sowing discord to both Clifford and Helen, it doesn’t take long for things to go south. Thanks to Angie stirring the pot, Clifford “could see all too clearly that Helen was capable of deceit and folly, and lack of judgment, and worse of all, lack of taste.” And Helen knows that Clifford has strayed with Angie, so the Wexford marriage gets off to a bad start. Clifford and Helen’s child, Nell is born on Christmas Day, 1965, but “a marriage that is rapidly put together can rapidly unravel.” Before Nell is even a year old, Clifford and Helen split, and an ugly custody battle ensues. Nell’s childhood, which could have been idyllic, begins to unravel. Nell is left in the care of a nanny guided by Nell’s paternal grandmother’s questionable child rearing beliefs, while Helen, cruelly, is only allowed slight access. Nell becomes a “tug-of-love” baby as her parents fight for her–Helen from maternal instinct and Clifford for spite.

When Helen remarries, Clifford, in a fit of malice hires a man to kidnap Nell. The kidnapping goes horribly wrong, and this tragic event shapes the lives of Clifford, Helen, and Nell. A large amount of the book follows Nell’s life, wrapped with modern fairy tale elements (Fate, wicked stepmother, black magic) as she falls into misfortune. Clifford and Helen must overcome their own negative characteristics before they come to a happy ending. The story shows that some people are gifted with good looks, and good luck, while others, such as Angie, are unlovable. Angie is a miserably unhappy character, but she makes her own misery:

Reader, to the happy all things come. Happiness can even bring the dead back to life. It is our resentments, our dreariness, our hate and envy, unrecognized by us, which keeps us miserable. Yet these things are in our heads, not out of our hands. We own them; we can throw them out if we choose.

Marriage also comes under scrutiny through Clifford and Helen, of course, but also through artist John Lally and his wife, Evelyn. Poor Evelyn, intimidated by her husband’s temper tantrums and moods, led a miserable (short) life. John Lally’s second wife, Marjorie, however, has an even happy, placid temperament and she simply refuses to absorb her temperamental husband’s nonsense.

“Don’t be absurd, John!” she’d say, when he was unreasonable. “Oh, what a bad temper!” she’d exclaim, apparently unmoved, when he ranted and raved. “John, you can’t be talking about me. You must be talking about yourself!” shed say if he tried to call her names.

He tried in a hundred ways to get the better of her, but couldn’t. If he didn’t speak to her she seemed not to notice, but fetched the neighbours in for coffee and talked to them instead. She made plans to include him but if he didn’t turn up or was late, simply went without him.

Good for Marjorie.

Miserable people spread misery; spite and unkindness bounce back in Weldon’s fate-driven, karmic world. There’s the underlying idea in this playful novel that people can change–obviously psychos are psychos and that doesn’t alter, but apart from that, admitting our mistakes, maturing or even marrying someone more compatible all present opportunities for growth. Interesting to note that the artistic characters seem to be overall happier.

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Seven Lean Years: Celia Fremlin (1961)

“Hate is stronger than you know.”

34-year-old Ellen Fortescue isn’t a quitter. She has been engaged for seven long years to Leonard, an accountant who says they can’t marry yet as he has to support his elderly step-mother, Laura. The long engagement has killed any romance, if there was any to begin with. Leonard is the type who loves to deliver patronising lectures, so he always assumes a position of superiority. Perhaps he was subtler 7 years ago, but now Leonard is insufferable. Even Ellen, who has a tendency to doubt herself and feel inadequate, begins to wonder if she wants to marry Leonard. Not that it’s a pressing question.

Ellen knew that every passing year was making it more and more necessary that the wait should have been worth while.

When Seven Lean Years opens, Ellen is the landlady ‘managing’ the various flats in her father’s sprawling home. She left her job a year before and moved in with her father when his health faltered. In order to make ends meet, she began renting out some of the rooms, but this has had spotty success. One of the tenants is Ellen’s cousin Melissa, plus her husband and 2 children There’s also Mrs. Hammond, who on one hand is very tolerant and easy going, but lackadaisical when it comes to her share of the stair cleaning. A married couple, the Butlers are ideal, they are quiet, neat and keep to a strict schedule, but if the schedule (which includes sharing a kitchen is threatened, it’s Ellen’s job to sort it.

They were all of them good tenants; but good, reflected Ellen gloomily, in such dreadfully incompatible ways.

Ellen’s already disordered life becomes more complicated with the return of Leonard’s step-mother Laura. The nursing home in which she lives is closing, and so Leonard takes Laura to his home, temporarily.

The relationships between the characters in the novel are tangled: Ellen’s father, Dick, was married to Laura at one point but left her to marry Ellen’s mother. Laura married a widowed neighbour and inherited Leonard as a stepson. Now Ellen and Leonard are engaged… Yes it’s messy. Laura swore revenge on Dick when he divorced her, and Leonard is convinced that if given half the chance, Laura will keep her promise. Yet Laura seems quite batty, floating in and out of her childhood memories.

Ellen is a problematic character. She’s passive and dumped on by everyone–her father, the tenants, her ridiculous fiancé and even the local builder who supposedly repaired the still-leaky roof. This makes her a difficult character as she is continually acted upon, screwed over and lectured, so much so that I found the book a frustrating read. The psychological aspects of the Ellen/Leonard relationship were interesting, but Ellen is too much of a doormat, at least for this reader. Some people choose to be victims, and this goes a long way to explaining Ellen’s passiveness. Her sudden, final revelations seem hard to believe, given her actions and choices.

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Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont: Elizabeth Taylor

“I must not wish my life away,” she told herself.

Elizabeth Taylor’s novel, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is an exploration of old age, loneliness and impending death. The focus of the novel is Mrs. Palfrey and her tedious life as one of a handful of elderly residents at a fading hotel. Mrs. Palfrey, facing old age has led an interesting life, but is now widowed and not particularly close to her only child, Elizabeth, who lives in Scotland. Mrs. Palfrey and her husband Arthur were abroad in Burma most of their married life, dealing with “natives.” They retired but now Mrs. Palfrey is alone. While visiting her daughter, she “chanced on an advertisement” in the paper for “reduced winter rates” at the Claremont hotel, so Mrs. Palfrey heads to London. Even though she didn’t have high hopes for the Claremont, the shabby-genteel reality is depressing.

The clientele can be divided into 2 categories: “long-term residents and birds of passage.” This is a fading hotel hanging on, desperately and begrudgingly to its clients. The place would probably fold without the steady income from the residents, but that doesn’t make the staff any nicer. The Claremont is one-step away from a nursing home, and most of the residents, all washed up at the Claremont for various reasons, can just afford the rates, so no one complains about anything. While the Claremont is a depressing place, it’s still a pleasant alternative to the dreaded dead-end nursing home.

Since all the residents are solitary, any visitors, any relatives are valued currency. There’s Mrs. Arbuthnot, whose spiteful condescending remarks are directly tied to her arthritis pain; Mr. Osmond, a fussy widower whose off colour remarks and jokes alarm the staff and the female residents, Mrs. Burton, who smokes and drinks heavily, and whose brother-in-law visits frequently. Finally there’s Mrs. Post, a nervous woman who is Mrs. Arbuthnot’s go-fer. During the course of the novel, a few other characters come and go, and each arrival and departure causes a stir and alters the resident dynamic. At the hotel, the highlight of each day is the menu, with its fortnightly rotating dishes. The time after dinner is spent in the lounge, when “knitting was brought out.”

As a newcomer, Mrs. Palfrey must find her spot on the social totem pole, and quizzed, she tells the others about her nephew, Desmond, who works at the British Museum. Everyone expects him to visit, but Desmond never shows; he even ignores his grandmother’s invitation to visit the Claremont and stay for dinner. Pointed comments from Mrs. Arbuthnot that supposedly express sympathy are really putdowns, and Mrs. Palfrey finds that she regrets ever mentioning her elusive grandson.

To Mrs. Arbuthnot she explains, “My daughter is so far off, in Scotland.”

“And you wouldn’t care to live in the North?” Mrs. Arbuthnot asked, probing.

Mrs. Palfrey had not been invited to, and she did not get on well with her daughter, who was noisy and boisterous and spent most of her time either playing golf or talking about it.

“I doubt if I could stand that climate,” she replied. In London, the rain was pouring down: in Scotland, it was coming down more steadily, as snow. They had watched it on the television that evening.

“No, of course not,” Mrs. Arbuthnot said quietly, with her eyes on Mrs. Palfrey once more.

One day, Mrs. Palfrey falls in the street and a young man, a burgeoning writer named Ludo comes to her rescue. Mrs. Palfrey invites Ludo to the Claremont and decides it would be a harmless ruse to pass Ludo off as her errant grandson, Desmond. Having a handsome, intelligent grandson who visits somehow raises Mrs. Palfrey in the eyes of the other residents. A visit from a relative is ‘proof’ that they have not been forgotten, that their lives are not failures, and that they are loved. (Actually, as ‘proof,’ it’s thin–but visits are of paramount importance to the residents.)

This is a novel about isolation, aging and and loneliness. Ludo, a young man, is every bit as isolated and lonely as Mrs. Palfrey, but thanks to his youth, he doesn’t recognise his loneliness yet. While he continues to visit Mrs. Palfrey, ostensibly to gather material for his book (even writing about her “fluffy grey knickers”) he also connects emotionally on some level with Mrs. Palfrey. Ludo’s own mother is selfish and irresponsible. Fat chance that maternal sacrifices will ever be made for Ludo, and Ludo’s ‘girlfriend’ is always on the lookout for a better relationship opportunity. Both of Ludo’s significant relationships, with his mother and with his girlfriend, leave him feeling gutted. Mrs. Palfrey is in the same boat, and age and the passage of time have allowed her to come to terms with the disappointments of family. While the blossoming relationship between Ludo and Mrs. Palfrey is a delight, for different reasons, Ludo’s private life spills over into his relationship with Mrs. Palfrey. How sad it is that relations do not see the elderly as people but rather as labels; how sad that children and grandchildren don’t see their parents and grandparents as individuals but instead see them as liabilities. We could perhaps argue that Ludo would have ignored Mrs. Palfrey is she were his grandmother rather than a woman he meets by pure accident–but no, this is not true, some people are capable of compassion. And some people are not.

Review copy.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was made into a film.

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The Fortnight in September: R.C. Sherriff (1931)

R.C. Sherriff’s The Fortnight in September lingered for too long on my TBR list, and now there’s a rerelease of this gentle, classic tale. This wonderful story follows the annual two-week holiday of the Stevens family: 20-year-old Mary, 17-year-old Dick,10-year-old Ernie and their parents. Mr and Mrs Stevens took their honeymoon in Bognor Regis 20 years earlier, and they return here every year for their annual holiday. They even stay at the same guesthouse, Seaview. The first few chapters set the stage for the night before the holiday–it’s a prequel of sorts. It’s packed full of planning rituals which are repeated, faithfully, every year. Mr. Stevens is a creature of habit. Everything must be ‘just so,’ and perhaps this explains why the holiday destination never varies.

They had often talked of a change–of Brighton, Bexhill–even Lowestoft–but Bognor always won in the end.

It’s Mary’s job to deliver the canary to neighbour, Mrs Haykin. It’s a dreaded task as poor Mrs Haykin, who has no social life, is pathetically eager to take care of the canary as:

the Stevenses holiday had become Mrs. Haykin’s holiday: she lived every moment of it from her little house in Corunna Road. Soon she would watch them pass on their way to the station. She would not settle to her morning’s work until she had seen their train go by and satisfied herself that they had had ample time to catch it. She always hoped one of them might wave from the window.

Over the course of twenty years, Seaview hasn’t changed–except that it’s steadily become shabbier.

The Stevenses had not definitely noticed anything amiss in Seaview in the years that followed. Mrs Huggett remained as flustered, as tremblingly anxious to please as ever. Molly seemed on the go all day–and yet—-there was just something different: some little thing each year. few years back the bath plug had broken from its chain: it had never been recaptured, and lay each year in freedom at the bottom of the bath. Year by year the sheets grew more cottony and frail: and Mr Stevens, happenings one night to have a sharp toenail, slit his top sheet down the centre, and enlarged it accidentally with his foot each night as he got into bed.

Not a great deal happens in this tale. We see the Stevens family as a unit with Mr Stevens organizing and marshalling the family like troops. Yet we also see them as individuals; Mary meets a young man and senses that this is the last holiday she will spend with her family. Dick, who started work a year before, is “terribly unhappy,” and is withdrawn. Away from the daily grind, the holiday appears to restore his spirits. There’s the sense that in spite of ritual and annual return trips, that life is changing for this family. There’s a sort of beauty in routine–as if our lives will stretch out to infinity. Published in 1931, there are big changes ahead. The world of Seaview, Dulwich and the life of the Stevenses will change forever.

Review copy

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Isa and May: Margaret Forster (2010)

In Margaret Forster’s Isa and May, Isamay, looking at 30, is struggling to focus on her thesis, and no wonder–the vast subject is grandmothers in history. She has landed on a few significant figures, including Elizabeth Fry, George Sand, Sarah Bernhardt, and Queen Victoria and has several questions that she chews over: such as how do grandmothers view their roles? She’s looking for “links, consequences, direct connections” between grandmothers and their grandchildren. Isamay’s research, so far, draws no solid conclusion. Some grandmothers are “figures of authority” while others see being a grandmother as a chance to ‘do over’ motherhood. Some just enjoy it. It’s clear that Isamay’s thesis is unmanageable and her unsatisfying meetings with her advisor Claudia, usually don’t go well. Claudia, however, doesn’t dismiss Isamay’s project completely, and tries to add direction:

When someone assumed a new role in life, she said, they tend to copy or to reject the example of whoever has filled that role for them.

But at the heart of Isamay’s thesis is her desire to understand her own grandmothers: Isa and May. They are two very different women.

It will be obvious by now that I am obsessed with Isa and May, my grandmothers, or more precisely, I am obsessed by their significance without being sure what it is.

May is solidly, proudly, working class. She left school at 14 and worked in a factory. She tends to hide her personality in frustrating statements that block any discussion so that it’s impossible to know her beliefs or tell if she has an inner life. Here’s Isamay trying to discover May’s opinions on god.

“God is supposed to be a spiritual power,” I said, “Not actually a person.”

“Well, that’s a relief.”

“He is supposed to be an almighty spirit who created the universe and sent his son Jesus Christ to save us all.”

“Very kind of him.”

“But the point is, as I said, he is a spiritual presence, or idea…”

“Make your mind up.”

“…whose existence we can’t properly grasp because our minds can’t fully comprehend–“

“Oh, for Gawd’s sake, stop it! You’re making me poorly. Haven’t I gone through enough?”

“All I’m saying is that some very clever people believe in God…”

“Good luck to them.”

“So you don’t, then?”

“Don’t what?”

“Believe in God.”

“Did I say that?”

“No, but…”

“Well then, don’t twist my words.

Isa is the complete opposite. Whereas it’s ok to drop in on May, Isa requires appointments. Isa is always immaculately groomed and lives a much more affluent lifestyle. May calls Isa, “Lady Muck,” while Isa calls May “Mrs. Wright.” “They were mutually suspicious” of each other from the moment they met. It’s no surprise that the two grandmothers don’t like each other and that Isamay is their battleground. Both grandmothers contributed a great deal to Isamay’s life and outlook. When the grandmothers become ill, Isamay steps in, and she’s also hot on the trail of some deep dark secret that Isa keeps deeply buried. Another subplot concerns Ian, Isamay’s boyfriend. On one hand he’s extremely supportive, but on the other, when it comes to the subject of family, he’s downright hostile, so there are secrets there too.

Not the best Forster I’ve read. The sections regarding Isamay’s research were interesting but Isamay’s inability to harness her thesis and batter it into shape impacts the novel. That said, the warring grandmothers are great. While these two women could not be more different, there’s a connection when it comes to walling off their inner lives.

My money’s on May any day.

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Should We Stay or Should We Go?: Lionel Shriver

“With all those numbers on the news every night, who’s going to notice if two more elderly Britons snuff it?”

The title of Lionel Shriver’s novel, Should We Stay or Should We Go? could refer to suicide or Brexit: both are issues in the novel through the main characters, Kay and Cyril Wilkinson. It’s 1991. Kay, an NHS nurse, is 51 when her 94-year-old father, who had dementia, finally dies. Now that her father is dead, Kay says she feels “absolutely nothing” as he’s spent years “dying by degrees.” Kay’s mother, 18 years her husband’s junior is now 76 years old “having squandered a decade and a half on toilet duty, cursed and vilified for her efforts.” The long illness of Kay’s father brings the subject of Cyril’s parents to the fore, and then the post funeral discussion segues to Kay and Cyril making a decision:

We should really keep the means to a quick exit at the ready on principle.

They don’t want to be like Kay’s father and so reject his example of the “whirlpool of endless need.” So, calculating their life expectancy, they make a pact to commit joint suicide on Kay’s 80th birthday in 2020. It sounds like a great idea at the time and so far away. …

The first part of the novel covers the pact and its fallout. This is followed by alternate outcomes of the pact in Sliding Doors fashion. Some outcomes were miserable–others make giant leaps with imagination–such as one alternative involving cryogenics and another dystopian future in which Britain experiences a “sudden deluge of migration.”

The pact and its outcome could have made a good short story or even a good novel; aging is a vast topic in itself, but the alternate scenarios didn’t work for this reader–although I seem to be in the minority here. Also, while the premise is interesting, its execution stresses issues with characters slotted into those issues like chess pieces. For example, early on Kay and Cyril have a long discussion (post her dad’s funeral) re aging, carers, financial concerns etc.

“True, the means-testing is pretty brutal-”

“The savings threshold above which the council won’t wipe your bum is a measly twenty grand-which is far more cash than Mum has left after all those carers, but she still wouldn’t qualify for benefits because she has the house. If you’ve stashed nothing away, or next to nothing? The council picks up the whole tab. How do you like that, Mister Socialist. You slave away your whole life like my father, carrying your financial weight and supporting your family, and then when you collapse the state says you’re on your own. Do nothing, earn nothing, and save nothing-make absolutely no provision for yourself-and the state takes care of you for free, soup to nuts. Talk about moral hazard! Obviously, anyone who does anything, earns anything, and saves anything is a berk!”

This discussion goes on for some time. It’s more like a talk radio rant than a post-funeral discussion between husband and wife.

Brexit, immigration, and Covid are thrown into the mix, so that the issues are broadened, while I (boringly perhaps) would have preferred a narrowing. Put the characters under a microscope instead of turning a telescope on them. Of far more interest, as the date for joint suicide approaches, is Cyril’s persistent belligerent bullying of Kay into suicide, so much so that she resorts to hiding that she has high blood pressure from her husband. And then as a GP, his attitude to the aging “bed blockers” is positively Harold Frederick Shipman in its nastiness. What a nasty old git Cyril is, a misery who begrudges life beyond 80. While he has a definite point (the pitfalls of life extension, the financial burden of end-of-life care, the use of heroic means to prolong life etc) Cyril’s insistence in carrying through with the pact in spite of his and his wife’s good health screams of something else. What elderly person would want a Dr. like Cyril? Anyway for this reader, there were too many issues flying through the plot.

Review copy

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An Imaginative Experience: Mary Wesley

While Mary Wesley’s novel An Imaginative Experience centres on two damaged people: Sylvester and Julia, there are other lost and lonely characters: Rebecca and Maurice who circle into Sylvester and Julia’s orbit in a somewhat vampirish fashion. Sylvester is decompressing from his unhappy marriage to Celia–a dreadful woman who has left Sylvester in order to remarry a former husband who has recently become much more affluent. Sylvester and Celia’s marriage was toxic, and Sylvester finds himself emotionally drained. Just as he’s trying to heal, Celia raids Sylvester’s home yet again to carry off loot–items to replace the ones she already took. As readers, we never meet Celia, but we have a solid idea of her character.

Similarly, we never meet Julia’s dead husband Giles–a man who could charm his way through life. Giles was living with Julia’s vile mother, Clodagh, supposedly writing a book while Clodagh footed the bills. After Clodagh broke a leg, Julia came to nurse her mother, was raped by Giles and ended up pregnant. The result was Christy, a little boy who went back and forth between his father and Julia’s house. When the book opens, Giles, who was drunk driving, had an accident which killed both father and son.

So here are the two damaged people–Sylvester and Julia–who connect in a situation involving a sheep. Former policeman, past PI Maurice, now a birdwatcher and nosy parker, begins spying on both Julia and Sylvester. Also in the loop is Rebecca, Sylvester’s pushy overly efficient, former secretary. There are not many characters in this novel, but they can be divided into two camps, the kind and the heartless. The nice people are definitely outweighed by their unpleasant counterparts. Maurice and Rebecca, who have no lives of their own (and I wonder why not???) spend a terrific amount of energy soaking up the details of Sylvester and Julia’s lives. Julia’s story, which should make the average person feel sympathy, only spurs Maurice into cruelty. The book shows the worst and the best of human nature. Kindness goes a long way and how unfortunate that so few of us can show a little kindness when it’s most needed.

The America section seemed over the top to this reader. I didn’t really ‘get’ the character of Julia–a self-punishing woman who married her rapist and nursed her dreadful mother. Similarly, Sylvester was too vanilla for my interest. This is the second Mary Wesley novel I’ve read and I would rate this below A Dubious Legacy.

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What Was She Thinking: Zoe Heller

“You never appreciate what a compost your memory is until you start trying to smooth past events into a rational sequence.”

Zoe Heller’s What Was She Thinking, a tale of how Sheba, a married woman, a teacher, has a sexual relationship with Steven, a 15 year old pupil could have been ripped from the headlines, so perhaps, then, it’s not too surprising to discover that the author was inspired by a real-life case. The absolute brilliant aspect of the book is the unreliable narrator, Barbara, a bitter, caustic, lonely single woman, who works with Sheba. Barbara’s version is, in her words, “her own account of Sheba’s downfall” in which she played a “minor role.” In a sense, there are three people in this sordid relationship: Sheba, Steven and Barbara. Media opinion swirling around this case declares that Steven is the victim and that Sheba is the predator. But it’s also arguable that Barbara, who played a critical role in this mess, is the supreme predator. Barbara, possibly a closeted lesbian (I’d argue against that) or then again possibly just lonely, is a long term history teacher when Sheba arrives as the new pottery teacher in the art department at an appalling London school. At first Barbara dislikes Sheba, but in common with many teachers at the school, she quickly falls under Sheba’s spell. There’s something about Sheba that’s magical: she’s disingenuous, and just … nice. But as nice as she may well be, she’s fresh meat for the school delinquents. When Barbara steps in to help Sheba with a discipline problem, the two women strike up a relationship, and soon Barbara is visiting Sheba’s home where she meets Sheba’s daughter, Polly, Ben, her Down’s syndrome son, and Richard, her much older, egotistical husband.

“You’re Barbara,” a voice said. I looked up and saw a tall man with a lot of crazy grey hair standing in the doorway, peering at me through thick spectacles. “Hello,” he said. “I’m Richard.” Sheba had mentioned that her husband was older than her; I was taken aback to discover by how much. Richard was not yet what you could call elderly, but middle age was no longer a plausible category for him either. His shoulders had begun to slope in the manner of overburdened coat hangers. The backs of his hands had a shiny, yellowish look.

Sheba is infantilized by her pedantic husband. He “condescended to Sheba, as he condescended to everyone. And whenever he got a little tired, or felt the spotlight shift momentarily from himself, or had one of his opinions challenged too vigorously, he tended to lapse into petulant babyness.” By looking at Sheba’s family life, it’s easy to see that Steven was a reaction to her life and marriage. Sheba admits that with Richard, she’d “been allowed to stay a child.” That’s one way of looking at it. Barbara who understands Sheba’s childhood notes that it came instinctively to Sheba to step in the role of “handmaiden to a great, pompous man.”

So onto Steven, the grubby, grotty 15 year-old who is so attractive in Sheba’s eyes, that she’s weak at the knees and drops her knickers. Steven is boorish, coarse, not particularly intelligent, and let’s face it … throughly uninteresting. Of course this is not a relationship that is going to last. Sheba is an intelligent, yet oddly naive woman who puts her life, her career, her reputation into the hands of a yobo. As for Steven… he’s mad about Sheba until she bores him.

What Was She Thinking is a perfect illustration of one of my pet theories: it matters not what or who the love object is, the love object is a vessel for the lover’s needs.

Barbara’s unreliable narration is as wickedly sharp as anything written by Muriel Spark. If we were to interview Sheba, we would probably get some sobby soppy version of her great “amour,” and Steven would probably present his own version of events (he does this later in the book), so how perfect that the narrator should deliver the tale with her own twisted, unreliable agenda. Barbara is a very lonely woman–a woman with resentments when it comes to the lives of others, and she’s spent a lifetime being left outside of the social sphere. While Barbara seems to love Sheba, there’s also a deep layer of resentment towards her. There are hints of another female friendship that turned rancid, and then when a male teacher appears to offer a hand of friendship, it opens the door to treachery. Barbara is content to take crumbs from Sheba, even as she circles around her, warding off a rival teacher, weaving a web of intrigue and dependency. But it’s when Sheba shows her lack of concern for Barbara’s cat (her sole companion) that Barbara’s claws come out. ….

This was a reread for me and I enjoyed the book with its deliciously wicked sense of humour even more the second time around. Here’s a final quote thrown in for fun. Oh the road to hell is paved with good intentions:

Such do-gooding fantasies are not uncommon in comprehensive schools these days. Many of the younger teachers harbour secrets hopes of “making a difference.” They have all seen the American films in which lovely young women tame inner-city thugs with recitations of Dylan Thomas. They, too, want to to conquer their little charges’ hearts with poetry and compassion.

And look where good intentions (or smokescreen?) led Sheba…. There’s more than one way to blow up your life.

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King of the World: Celia Fremlin (1994)

“The intensity of a mad person’s certainty is irresistibly compelling.”

If I had to pick an alternate title for Celia Fremlin’s King of the World, it would be: Spot the Looney (yes I know, I’m insensitive); this idea came to me repeatedly as I read the book. Not first tier Fremlin, but still an interesting read, which centres on this author’s dominant theme: mental illness.

It’s London, and Bridget and Diane, both successful, young career women, decide to advertise for a flatmate. Problems immediately arise when Alistair, Diane’s annoying, ever-present boyfriend, fields phone calls from a bunch of applicants. He, with his “self-absorbed smile,” declares that the applicants are “gibbering,” yet he favours one particular woman who is “self-effacing to the point of non-existence. Pathologically anxious to please. Anxious altogether, I’d say–a genetically programmed worry-guts. But that will make her all the more malleable, won’t it?

Fremlin’s final novel

When Alistair adds that this woman, Norah Payne, is a battered wife, a woman who has fled an abusive husband and now seeks shelter, Diane and Bridget both agree that she is not a good option for a roommate. But Alistair had already invited the woman around to the flat, and the next thing you know, Norah is in the flat with a “harrowing story.” Already irritated beyond measure by the meddlesome Alistair, Bridget has no patience for Norah:

A born victim-type, no wonder her husband beat her up.

There’s something about Norah’s story that doesn’t add up, but Diane, who “sets up documentaries relevant to one or another of today’s fashionable concerns,” sees raw material in Norah’s plight. Initially, with Bridget arguing against renting a room to Norah, the runaway wife is allowed to stay just a few days until she can arrange something else, but Diane’s rather morbid interest in Norah’s situation, drags Bridget, Diane and Alistair into Norah’s life, and guess what… she hasn’t quite told her new flatmates the whole story.

Given the vagaries of human nature, marriage is never an easy proposition, but I often chew over how particularly difficult it must be to be married to a therapist… or a psychiatrist. Perhaps I am being unfair, but I imagine the weariness, the tediousness of having one’s actions constantly analyzed. … But back to the book….And let’s peel back the layers of Norah’s home life–a home life so dreadful, she ran away.

Norah’s memories reveal the layers of a pathological home life. Norah is married to Mervyn, an arrogant hospital consultant psychiatrist, and they have a son, Christopher. Mervyn is intelligent, patronizing and commanding; he’s proud of his son and considers him to be a genius (a chip off the old block?). When Christopher begins to show signs of mental illness, Mervyn blames Norah: according to Mervyn, and after all he’s the expert, she’s controlling, suffocating, plagued with “mad delusions.”

There were moments when she couldn’t even believe it herself. Was she (as Mervyn kept assuring her) imagining things? Once again, she found herself in the grip of those doubts about her own sanity which are an occupational hazard for carers in her situation. To be in the presence of distorted thinking twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, takes its toll in the end. One picks up the distorted logic in just the same way in picks up a foreign language when living abroad; it lodges in the brain effortlessly, and almost without conscious awareness.

Abusers, and Mervyn is an abuser, create greenhouses for their victims–I say ‘greenhouse’ because it’s a structure, an environment, in which all aspects of the emotional and physical climate are controlled by the abuser–Mervyn decides who is mentally ill and why. There are no other opinions allowed, and as the situation at home becomes worse, Mervyn slides into pathological denial. Not my favourite Fremlin as I was not attached to the characters in any way–they remained at a distance, but still… Fremlin’s recreation of Norah’s home life and the escalating denial is all-too credible.

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