Tag Archives: regret

When All is Said: Anne Griffin

“I’m here to remember–all that I have been and all that I will never be again.”

In Anne Griffin’s novel When All is Said, 84 year-old Maurice Hannigan sits at the bar of at the Rainsford House Hotel, Ireland, and recalls his life. It’s been a long life full of its joys and tragedies. Maurice is now alone; his wife Sadie is dead and his son Kevin is far way in America. Maurice, a very wealthy man who grew up in dire poverty, has sold his house, given away his dog,  and is in the brink of moving into a nursing home, but what is really going on here?

Over the course of the evening, Maurice recalls the five most significant people in his life: including his long-dead older brother Tony,  his still-born daughter, and his wife.

When all is said

84 years is a long time, and as Maurice recalls his life, we see how the world has changed. Maurice grew up in a large poor family, and his education was interrupted when, at age ten, he went to work at the Dollard estate where his mother worked in the kitchen. The scenes at the Dollard house are miserable with the lord of the manor beating and humiliating his son, Thomas, which has a trickle-down effect to Maurice. These episodes are a reminder of how the world of employment of servants, a world in which servants had to tolerate everything dumped on them, has changed, well at least in some countries–not all.

I was fascinated by the trajectory of … not exactly revenge… no the novel isn’t bitter enough for that. No, the novel has a trajectory of “payback,” re-balance & the settling of old scores. Maurice’s beatings harden him, yes, but they don’t turn him into a ball of rage and revenge. This is a man who remembers the slights and injustices of his past and then singlemindedly triumphs over his humiliations and those who caused them. Maurice isn’t proud of all his actions, and there’s an incident in his past involving a missing valuable coin which has repercussions throughout his life.

The scenes with Maurice and his brother were touching. Here’s Maurice now at age 84, an extremely wealthy man, and yet he grew up in the harshest poverty, with meat a scarce treat. Now Maurice could buy his way out of the problems of his youth, but time doesn’t allow those sorts of second chances.

One of the most poignant episodes of the novel involves Maurice and his acquaintance with Jason, a young man who marries into the Dollard family.

I’d seen Jason around the village over the years since our showdown.  He’d nod in my direction or mouth a very curt hello. Always in a rush somewhere. In return I’d raise my index finger not too high mind. Regret is too strong a word, but I wish I’d made an effort to know him. There was something trustworthy in his bravery the night he’d stood at my our front door asking me to give more money for the Dollard land. But even if I had reached across the divide and stopped for a chat on those days we passed each other by, I doubt he’d have given me the time of day. I wouldn’t have, had the shoe been on the other foot. In the end, he possibly came out the better man. 

Some of the memories were moving but others (for this reader) were on the maudlin/wallowing side. There’s a lot of melancholy and misery here, and Maurice’s overwhelming sense of ‘being done’ is evident. The author makes it clear that Maurice is an interesting individual with many stories to tell but he’s been reduced to the those stereotypical roles: Old Man: the one who talks too much, who’s a bit of a nuisance, the one who’s sidelined as a ‘character’ by those who still have their own lives to live. Very sad.

Review copy

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A Game of Hide and Seek: Elizabeth Taylor

I’ve read four Elizabeth Taylor novels so far. Loved a couple of them and liked the others. A Game of Hide and Seek–a subtle, clever novel about middle-aged regret falls into the latter category.

The novel opens with its two central characters, Vesey and Harriet during the holidays in the countryside. Vesey is going off to Oxford in the autumn, “his next steps would take him over the threshold of a new and promising world” but for the moment he’s staying with his aunt Caroline and Uncle Hugo and their two children, Deirdre and Joseph. Former suffragette Caroline is best friends with Harriet’s mother, Lilian, and both women were once arrested for their beliefs. There’s the sense that there’s an immense gap between generations. Harriet “fulfilled none of the ambitious desires” of her mother, and Vesey is an annoyance to his uncle:

Hugo Macmillan had still much of that poetic ebullience which distinguished so many young men just before the 1914 war. He suggested in middle-age, a type of masculinity now perhaps vanished to the world; the walking tours in perfect spring weather, Theocritus in pocket: an aesthetic virility. He had gone on being Rupert Brooke all through the war–a tremendous achievement–and was only now, much later, finding his enthusiasms hardening into prejudices and, sometimes, especially with Vesey, into a techy disapproval of what he did not understand. His old-fashioned liberalism now contained elements of class-hatred; his patriotism had become the most arrogant nationalism. His love and sympathy for the women of his youth, his support in their fight for a wider kind of life, made him unsympathetic to the younger women who came after. Every feminality these young girls (he even called them Flappers) felt free to adopt and they were fewer than usual at that time) he openly despised.

Although Taylor never overworks this idea, there’s the sense that this younger generation are a disappointment for their elders: Hugo, who fought and survived WWI, feels “antagonism” for Vesey’s “laziness and his cynicism.” These days feminism is “a weird abnormality,” and Caroline and Lillian wonder what they fought for.

a game of hide and seekLong summer days are spent by Vesey and Harriet playing hide-and-seek with the children and while the game spins away the hours, it’s also a way for 18-year-old Vesey and Harriet to spend time together alone. Harriet is in love with Vesey, but Vesey looks forward to what he assumes is his brilliant future. While Caroline predicts a mediocre academic career for Vesey, he imagines himself as an influential “literary figure [rather] than as a man at work.” There’s an arrogance there that translates to occasional cruelty towards Harriet. Harriet’s romance with Vesey is brought to an abrupt halt, and Harriet begins work as a junior shop assistant in a dress shop. The “senior” assistants are all single women, desperate and rather sad, given to extreme beauty treatments geared towards increasing their shelf life–including man-eater Miss Lazenby who “was always plucking her eyebrows ” until she “had scarcely any eyebrows left, only an inflamed expanse.”

Harriet is gently courted by solicitor Charles Jephcott, a much older man who assumes a fatherly role rather than a romantic one. Charles is boring, respectable, courteous–everything probably to balance the outrageousness of his famous actress mother, Julia, whose main goal in life, and one in which she succeeds admirably, is to “draw attention to herself.” And so, at a bad time in her life, and because she has loved and lost,  Harriet agrees to marry Charles.

Fast forward almost twenty years, and Vesey, now a down-on-his-heels, second-rate actor returns, and all of Harriet’s feelings are reawakened….

A Game of Hide and Seek has some marvellously drawn scenes, for example when Charles insists Harriet attend a performance of Hamlet with Vesey playing Laertes. Charles knows full well that the play will be shabby, and he hopes that the performance will take some of the gilt from Vesey. Possibly the best aspect of the novel is its wonderful secondary characters: the shop assistants at the dress shop, the Jephcott’s Dutch servant Elke, who writes long letters home explaining her confusion about the English, Harriet’s daughter, Betsey who appears to have inherited her grandmother’s histrionic tendencies, and Charles’s awful mother Julia who finds Harriet “dull and slavish,” as she “hovers round [Charles] like a Praying Mantis.” She’s waiting for the marriage to crack and is delighted by the idea that her daughter-in-law might have a lover.

The novel, while exploring the depths of a revived love affair, is not sentimental or even romantic. Instead the novel asks questions such as: Do we get second chances in love?  Or is there a point at which it’s too late to begin again? There’s something very poignant about Vesey, twenty years on, stripped of his youthful arrogance, and what of Harriet who is afraid of showing her middle-aged body?

While I really liked the novel, and find that it sits well in my memory, I couldn’t help the sneaking thought that the sum of the story was not equal to its parts. The secondary characters remain very strongly in my mind, and their creation required a sharp, wicked sense of humour. However, for this reader, I wasn’t entirely convinced that Vesey would have fallen for the middle-aged Harriet any more than he fell for the 18-year-old version–although I did contemplate that perhaps she represented, for him, the moment in his youth when he thought he had the world at his feet. Living with Charles for twenty years has caused his dullness to infect Harriet, and although we know that she’s unhappy and unfulfilled, yet still I wasn’t convinced that Vesey was ever serious about Harriet. But then again, perhaps he wasn’t….Back to that game of hide-and-seek.

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