Those happy readers who sing hymns of praise to lyrical childhoods, their own, and, by extension, those in their favourite works of fiction, would do well to study Deborah Moggach’s extraordinarily skilful account of a childhood blasted by what is now acknowledged to be a more widespread offence than was previously recognised: incest. To write about childhood without sentiment is difficult, for childhood can be a time of boredom and confusion, when events occur in advance of the critical apparatus which might accept or deflect them. One of Deborah Moggach’s great successes is to portray this state of randomness while making us aware that it is only a matter of time before a dawning consciousness will reflect on damage irrevocably done.
Heather Mercer is called Porky because her father keeps pigs in a ramshackle field near Heathrow Airport. Heather is a very good girl: the neatest order reigns in her tiny bedroom although she is aware of the flyblown chaos in and around the bungalow which is the home provided by her parent. All food is fried, the television is on full blast, the air is thick with cigarette smoke; in the yard, shed or field where Porky tries to play, stands the evidence of various abandoned enterprises, the pigs, a few hens, a van, the odd parked car or two. Overhead the jets roar off to distant places. The landscape is dominated by airport hotels and by factories with names like Dataloop Systems.
Mother is a cold, silent, defeated woman, who goes off to work at Terminal Two wearing a tightly-knotted headscarf and a turquoise fitted coat. Father doesn’t go anywhere much: he is large, shiftless, amiable and foolish, the sort of parent to be preferred by an affectionate and uncritical child. While mother goes into hospital to have an unwanted second baby, the affection of the father for the daughter, and of the daughter for the father, becomes corrupt. For if both come to the realisation that the father is enormously, monstrously, unforgivably guilty, Porky also knows that her collusion was genuine, because she genuinely loved her father.
And Porky is still a good girl. She grows up, diets, learns French from cassettes, and fulfils her lifelong ambition of becoming an air hostess. She likes men, of course, but only those who stay the night in airport hotels and whom she will never see again: the more unattractive they are, the freer she feels. All this is excellently done, and so naturally achieved that I resented the intrusion of melodrama into the dénouement. On her travels, Porky, who is now quite affectless, meets a young Muslim who falls in love with her. They move into a flat in Earl’s Court, and, through indifference or self-destructiveness, she serves him a meal containing pork. Without the very careful setting – that wasteland between the A4 and the A30 – the story would lose much of its impact. The most terrible image is not one of physical violation, but of the evidence of it which is provided when Porky comes home from school to find the door of her cherished bedroom open: there is a dent in the eiderdown, a saucer containing two cigarette stubs on the floor, and a pervasive smell of sweat and smoke. Her father has been there. This sets up a genuine tremor of dread.
The wilder shores of love are also investigated by Carolyn Slaughter in The Banquet, but here the tragic naivety impersonated by Deborah Moggach is replaced by a sense of strain which is in its way entirely appropriate. Harold Moreton is a solemn young bachelor of refined habits. He has all the appurtenances of a successful life: the mews cottage, the antiques, the architectural practice. He is plausible without being convincing, which is a pity, because he intrudes into the third-person narrative with a few first-person chapters of his own. Harold, who shops at the Kensington branch of Marks and Spencer, falls in love with an assistant in the Food Hall, a girl called Blossom, who is slavishly described and compared with various edibles in the high-quality range: indeed, food plays a considerable part in Harold’s sensorium, as does the noble house of Marks and Spencer. For a while all is King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. But the Beggar Maid, in this instance, is sharp-witted enough to become uneasy when confronted with the full blast of Harold’s adoration. What she does not know is that a specific kind of loss has consumed Harold’s past and threatens his entire future. Blossom ends up dead, and the manner of her going is unclear, but by this stage the reader is caught in the mood of the story, which for all its brand names and secular particularities is really a mourning ritual of some intensity – unsatisfactory, but, like all Carolyn Slaughter’s work, impressive.
In her novel Mrs Caliban Rachel Ingalls displayed both unusual anthropomorphism and unusual narrative power. Both these attributes are in evidence once again in Binstead’s Safari, which transforms the story of a tired marriage – that of the Binsteads – and an expedition stoically or indifferently taken together – their safari – into a parable which has more to do with myth or magic than with anything encountered in the rational world which is the framework of the narrative. Stan Binstead is a tedious academic who is working on lion cults, and on the legend that the lion will choose his bride: the king of beasts putting his mark on a woman whom he perceives to be one of the elect. Millie Binstead is his downtrodden wife who, once in Africa, begins to undergo an unprecedented transformation. Part of this is the result of her meeting and falling in love with Henry ‘Simba’ Lewis, a renowned lion hunter. After his death, it is apparent that the lion which threatens the safari camps always stops and walks towards Millie. Attempts to shoot this lion fail. Stalking exasperates the tempers of all the members of the team except Millie, who, one day, walks into the lion’s arms and dies. Thereafter it becomes a point of honour for Stan to kill the lion, but the book ends before the contest, which one feels will be unavailing. This is very much a take-it-or-leave-it account, but then so is the novel: terse, laconic, yet romantic in a manner to which I found myself resistant. It seemed child-like and alien, though written from a standpoint of some sophistication.
As her short stories and her previous novel have shown, Edith Reveley is a sympathetic writer and on occasion a very astute one. Her second novel, In Good Faith, will give pleasure to those readers who are prepared to settle for the first quality but may disappoint those who have been led to expect insights a little sharper than those on show here. This story of Margery and George Ince, living in Rome, where George is employed by some sort of multinational philanthropic and acronymic organisation, falls into the same painless slot as Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred. The story turns on the arrival of Muriel, an unloved American teenager whose ghastly parents are trying to wean her away from undesirable influences. Events of an extreme but predictable nature take place before it all ends happily. As a setting Rome is wasted on this chronicle, its flora and fauna treated as no more than comic walk-ons.
Edith Reveley’s novel represents the traditional novel of manners – of good manners – so popular in those sections of society which decree that anger, protest and exposure are essentially bad manners: Monica Furlong’s novel, Cousins, belongs to an even older tradition which sees the woman’s novel as a moral tale. The cousins of the title are Laura and Hugo: he is a theologian and a priest, although from his behaviour there is no evidence of this, and she is a sculptor. He passes for a believer and she for an unbeliever. But their love affair, which is complicated by his wife, his sister and his son, turns sour as Laura receives disagreeable proofs of Hugo’s emotional bankruptcy. Being a modern woman she does not give herself too hard a time on moral grounds, but, when commissioned to sculpt the Stations of the Cross for a new church in a slum area of Liverpool, she begins to perceive that the higher love is of a different nature, that true love should relax one’s defences rather than tense one with the need to accommodate changes in emotional fortune. Although this is indisputable, it is also undoubtedly more difficult than it is made to sound or, in this case, read. But Monica Furlong’s lively narrative will do much to persuade those who are of a like mind, and even more if their minds, like hers, are already convinced of this particular truth.
All these novels are written by women. Yet with the exception of Deborah Moggach’s Porky, they add little to the vocational character of women’s writing. The shining example of how well a woman can write without being fantastic, archaic, obtrusive or sentimental, without, in fact, displaying the rather tired characteristics of womanliness, is provided by Alice Munro in The Moons of Jupiter. In this excellent collection of stories, Alice Munro is treading on the heels of her compatriot, Margaret Atwood. Events are less powerful in Munro’s stories; most have to do with loss – of lovers, home, parents, childhood – and the tone is detached, wry, speculative. The narrator is invariably a middle-aged woman of good sense, too level-headed to get over-excited, although there is much to become nervous about. Munro is particularly good at spotting malice disguised as sympathy, or on women intent on stirring things up (‘To be a femme fatale you don’t have to be slinky and sensuous and disastrously beautiful, you just have to have the will to disturb’). Delaying and distancing tactics are distilled through the clear and scrupulously impartial writing, and the result, although mildly sad, is also invigorating.
Where Gissing and Orwell went before, Alix Kates Shulman and Alice Walker now go fearlessly and with no small degree of self-advertisement. For her novel, On the Stroll, Alix Kates Shulman lived in a shelter for the homeless. She gleaned from her experience any amount of street wisdom, all of it desolating in the degree to which it falls short of the real thing. Here you may read how to be a pimp, how to start up as a prostitute, how to get a free breakfast if you are a shopping-bag lady. This is truly life without enlightenment, and although unhappy childhoods are presented as extenuating circumstances for the three protagonists and their gutter existence, one feels brutalised by the fact that any kind of alternative is totally ignored. Obviously the author felt something of this too, for she gives her novel – which is in fact a fictionalised documentary – an unequivocally happy ending, sending her 16-year-old prostitute off on the Greyhound bus to California, which, if not an ideal destination, is at least a great deal better than the place she leaves behind.
Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, won the Pulitzer Prize, and indeed this author is widely acknowledged as a major force in black writing. To enter her world is literally to enter the ghettos which are her untiring preoccupation: being black and being a woman. Two sisters, Celie and Nettie, grow up poor and disadvantaged in Alabama. Fathers, step-fathers and husbands seem to be interchangeable, since all are given to deceit, laziness and rape. Nettie, the clever sister, becomes a missionary in Africa; Celie, the downtrodden one, merely exists until her consciousness is raised by a prestigious female singer with whom she falls in love. Partners change, children proliferate, liaisons abound. Yet in their different ways the sisters achieve some sort of happiness; both love and eventually are loved, and both find God, although their reading of Genesis is a specifically black reading. The narrative is split into two sets of letters: those from Nettie to Celie are prim, high-minded and articulate, while those from Celie to Nettie are written in black argot which conveys a succinct and painful impression of a deprived and lightless life. These characters are benighted but truthful. Nevertheless, it is a one-sided view of woman’s lot; what used to be called man’s estate receives short shrift, or rather no shrift at all.
Judith Krantz is an author new to me although I enjoyed the TV movie of Scruples. From the title I had supposed this to be about moral preoccupations of a Jamesian nature: in fact Scruples turned out to be a smart boutique and the action turned upon the tangled lives of creative people throwing themselves body and soul into the business of window-dressing. Mistral’s Daughter is about another lot of people doing exactly the same thing, only this time they are in France and the cause is art. Julien Mistral is the towering genius who sets them all off: being a painter, he is entitled to refer to ‘that bugger Matisse’ and ‘that damned acrobat Picasso’ and to ‘gray, boring, imitative, dreary Braque’.
Mistral falls in love with Maggy, a tempestuous redhead from Tours, and descriptions of their frequent unions are set down breathlessly, limitlessly, and on a note of hyperbolic extravagance which convinces us that we are already in the realms of gold. Art too is served. ‘The first time Julien Mistral painted Maggy, the first time he dipped his brush, unthinkingly, into vermilion and painted that shadow, he heard a cosmic “Ah ha!” rock his brain.’ That ‘unthinkingly’ is but an indication of the author’s enthusiasm and indeed generosity, for Judith Krantz’s characters are not the only ones who are having love affairs: the author herself is cannibalising whole tracts of experience and information and releasing them in the form of travelogues, guides to art-dealing and house purchase, fashion notes, menus and tips on the right underwear. Mistral himself is soon left behind as the women in his life get on with the business of survival and master the cardinal rule of success, which is to get men to make what Judith Krantz calls ‘the most basic provisions for the women they should have protected’.
I have to say that Mistral’s Daughter is not half bad. There was a moment at which I felt condescension melt down into a dreadful sort of recidivism. Reading it is like over-eating without putting on an ounce. It is hot tips from a lifetime of women’s magazines. It is getting and spending and giving in and trading up. It is a wide-eyed, hard-nosed fairy story with a feel for the right investments. It is the dirty old world, instead of the brave new one. I did not believe a single word of it. But by the end I was ready to turn in my badge and concede that many people will be delighted to see myth and reality so artfully combined.