“Another twenty years and with luck we’ll be dead. We’ve got through twenty already, what’s another twenty?”
Margaret Forster’s The Bogeyman is a look at the ghastly life of a London family. It’s the 60s. Father Jack is a much-feared and loathed schoolmaster, while wife Edith stays at home in their disastrous home which is appropriately placed next to an asylum. They have three children: teenagers Justin, Natalie and new baby Sebastian. The book opens with the arrival of 18-year-old German au-pair Christina, who is supposed to be the answer to all the family’s problems. Edith hasn’t been coping since the birth of Sebastian, but the problems are far deeper-rooted than just postpartum depression. Jack is a unhappy man who feels trapped by his family; he hates his job and his students, and his hatred for his family is on the point of exploding. Natalie and Justin loathe their parents in different ways, and although they sense their father’s violence right under the surface, nonetheless they both live to goad him.
Christina, in her pictures, looked plain but wholesome. In reality, she is striking, and so for a while, The Bogeyman seemed destined to take us to some familiar territory, but while Christina does act as a catalyst for the events that take place, the problems within the family leave Christina as a silent spectator more than an active participant.
Like rats in a trap, the family members gnaw on each other mercilessly, with poor Edith at the bottom of the totem pole. Christina’s presence means that the house is tidy, the baby fed and the meals cooked, and that leaves Edith free. But free to do what?
When, after several weeks of bone idleness, the time began to drag just a little, she decided to do something about it. At ten thirty, she picked up the Daily Telegraph and a pencil in a determined fashion. She was going to write down all the important topics she didn’t know anything about and after asking Jack to give her a background, she would follow them through each day. She wrote down AFRICA. Africa was very important, she didn’t need telling.
But Edith’s plans don’t work out.
Without potatoes to peel and beds to make she was nothing. She wasn’t discovering a new self, smothered all these years. She was laying bare what was merely a scaffolding.
One of the consequences of Christina’s presence is that Jack decides to take Edith to the pictures. He immediately regrets his decision. Edith is delighted about this rare night out, and he is “appalled” at her “transparent naivete” and excitement. This of course gives him ample opportunities for casual cruelty.
While the marriage is toxic, Jack’s relationships with his children are vile. Jack hopes Natalie commits a crime so she’ll be “packed[ed] off to Borstal.” Natalie and Justin despise their parents. Justin thinks his mother is “practically illiterate,” and takes his hatred of his father to the classroom. Natalie leaves large bottles of aspirin around the house, hoping that her parents commit suicide. Every single interaction is an opportunity for abuse. Verbal, emotional and physical. The book was published in 1965, and society’s attitude towards child abuse has changed.
“Where did you get that watch?” asked Edith suddenly.
As Natalie had stretched out her dirty hand for a cake, the thin gold chain and small, diamond shaped clock face stood out. “Use your brains, if you’ve got any,” said Natalie nonchalantly.
“You didn’t buy it?” asked Edith.
“Don’t be funny. How could I buy anything on what scrooge here doles out.”
“Who gave it to you and why?” said Jack sharply.
Natalie ate her cake, eyeing them both with pleasure. They were leaning forward, tense and waiting. She toyed with answers. “I got it from a sailor,” she said, “for services rendered.”
This is an odd book. Parts of it are brilliant. I especially loved how Edith morphs into Mrs Jellyby, but apart from that it’s not easy to read at times due to the sheer hatred that is lobbed back and forth between the family members. We never know what poor Christina thinks. She is not a developed character–she’s a blank–and it’s hard to understand why she stays in a house where Natalie shouts orders to her mother to “shove your tit” in the baby’s mouth, and subsequently calls the new au pair a “foreign slut” echoing her father’s sentiment against hiring her in the first place. Jack is the toxic villain here, a frustrated, unhappy man who takes out his misery on his family. Marriages can rot to the extent that the greatest joy resides in making each other miserable, but in this case, Edith is the sponge and the children are active participants manufacturing mayhem and misery. There are times when the teens realise that their mother is a buffer, and a victim too, but she can’t protect them; she’s made her own escape. In this toxic environment, everyone is damaged. It’s profoundly sad and the ending is problematic.
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