Candia McWilliam’s first novel, A Case of Knives, won the Betty Trask Award last year. I expect I am wrong in persistently remembering this as a prize for something called Romantic Fiction; I believe I am right in thinking that the rubric was extended to include the words ‘or traditional’. The formidable young McWilliam doesn’t seem to me to fit comfortably under either label. A Case of Knives was a dazzling, burnished, stilt-walking stylistic exercise, like that of a very clever student who had been nourished on a forced diet of John Cleveland, George Barker (The Dead Seagull) and Craig Raine, and who had once heard the plot of a novel by Iris Murdoch. The novel’s characters were indeed Romantic, if by that one means fabulous, fanciful, whimsical, high-flown, etc, as under Roget 515: Lucas Salik, Anne Cowdenbeath, Cora Godfrey and the rest seemed precocious fictions, made palpable only by the finely-honed language in which they expressed themselves (‘Language is a case of knives’): ‘I was driven home by a man with no hands, my heart belonging to a man who was a mender of hearts, and within me was growing another heart, not mine at all, but never quite not mine. These grotesque anatomical tmeses touched my dreams through a thin sleep.’ Grotesque tmeses appeared to be what Candia McWilliam was good at.
A Little Stranger is recognisably by the same writer, but – without losing her characteristic gift for producing High Mandarin on almost every page – McWilliam has concentrated her effects to advantage. Partly this is a matter of length, or rather brevity: the text has little more than 120 pages. Tension is resolutely kept up, menace is delicately but incisively suggested.
As in A Case of Knives, this is the Land of Plenty. ‘The benediction bestowed by money was all about,’ and enjoying that blessing is Daisy, happily married, in a prosperous stretch of the Home Counties. She needs a nanny for her small son John and, as the book begins, is in the process of hiring one: a young woman, Margaret Pride, who seems all that such people should be – she loves children, is neat, tidy, competent, not in the way, and carries good references. Daisy is secure: ‘I knew that I held, with my husband, the umbrella of family love which will keep out even the most terrible rain.’ John, an uncomplicated child, takes to Margaret, whose quiet firm presence is a bonus in all this perfection.
And yet ... Daisy is snobbishly disconcerted by Margaret’s genteel chain-store ways; her ‘standard English was the off-white kind favoured by hotel receptionists and vendeuses of posh slap’; Daisy is a hyperaesthete of choice and rare vocabulary (the fact that she’s half-Dutch is, I think, suggested as an explanation for her preternaturally keen ear for diction and register), whereas with Margaret ‘to listen to her was to hear language strangled at birth.’ And Margaret’s inhibited ways of expressing herself are matched by her primness about much else: her conspicuous lack of vices is disarmingly old-fashioned, and this, too, Daisy – worldly, wordy, self-interestedly ‘complicated’ – takes almost as a rebuke. Talk about nannies with other affluent neighbourhood wives (for all still employ this depleted species) reveals fears: ‘stealing my husband’, ‘going for people with knives’, ‘killing one or more of the children’.
Nothing so obvious in Margaret’s case. Daisy, pregnant again and in a warm cocoon of euphoria, is blind both to what she is doing to herself and to what is going on around her. Her compulsive eating is a paradigm of the luxury she inhabits, but she, and we, discover it too late – just as, too late, Margaret’s secretive, compulsive, finally mad and destructive cycle of anorexia and bulimia is a graph of her deprivation, her romantic starving longings. Both women have been living on the margins of their own lives, and are made to learn the terribleness of perfection.
A Little Stranger is highly efficient, poised, surprising, original, and distasteful. There are fewer sequins of mannered observation sewn into it than one found in A Case of Knives (though some are still a bit too pleased with themselves – ‘Through their snoods, like garlic-paper, nipped the milk teeth of snowdrops’); and Candia McWilliam can now manage an effect without always flaunting it in the reader’s face. I admire what she is doing, can see how well she does it, yet can’t persuade myself that I like it. She is a connoisseur of uneasiness; she makes me feel nothing but unease.
Margaret Pride’s thwarted act of revenge in, and against, the Land of Plenty is gruesomely multiplied and more than matched in forensic analysis in J.G. Ballard’s novella Running wild. The land here isn’t rich rural but the elegant Berkshire outer suburbia of Pangbourne Village, a rus in urbe constructed for the new rich of the Eighties. On a June morning in 1988, the 32 adults who live there are murdered in various ingenious ways, and their 13 children disappear. The whole brief horror story is reconstructed by a deputy psychiatric adviser to the Metropolitan Police.
Clearly, what Ballard is up to here isn’t some sort of documentary imitation of anything like Michael Ryan and Hungerford, but a Ballardesque extrapolation of such incidents as those involving the Baader-Meinhof gang, Patty Hearst, and other manifestations of the ‘children of revenge’: moments not simply of gratuitous psychopathic violence (Ryan), but wilful rebellion by the children of the rich and privileged. For the investigation makes clear that the 13 children calculated in cold blood the slaughter of their parents and their parents’ employees (housekeepers, chauffeurs, au pairs, tutors, security guards). These teenagers – pampered, pushed, protected – chose to destroy the luxurious prison in which they had been incarcerated since birth; and then vanished.
‘In a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom’: as in A Little Stranger, perfection has become terrible, and an ordered world demands the exhilaration of disorder. Ballard’s fable – if that is what it is, and not a prediction of the immediate future in ‘the exclusive estates of southern England’ – is followed through with such clinical realism that it almost becomes real. But not quite: what’s lacking, for all its investigatory and juridical skills, is the more mysterious, more troubling imaginative inwardness that made Jim in Ballard’s Empire of the Sun so convincing. Like Pangbourne Village itself, everything is somehow too neat.
‘Family romances’ (Freud’s term – or that is how it seems to be translated into English, anyway) are seldom ‘romantic’ in the ordinary sense. What people make up about their parents and their childhood may – and often does – involve occasional early and late fantasies concerning adoption, members of the aristocracy surreptitiously making deals with those purporting to be one’s father and mother, lost siblings ... But more often there seems to be a subdued notion that one has been put on banal and faintly malign tramtracks which probably run on genetic lines, as in Larkin’s ‘This be the verse’ (‘They fuck you up ...’). And then there’s the matter of one’s own children – having them, bringing them up, worrying about them, letting them go – as they too perpetuate their genealogical trees, and so on, and so on.
Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons begins with a familiar situation: husband and wife driving to a funeral. What is also familiar is that the journey is fraught from the start. Death doesn’t necessarily bring out the best in people. Maggie bashed the car the moment she drove out of the body-shop where it had just been repaired, so they go gingerly from Maryland to Pennsylvania, fussing about routes. (They have been married 28 years, so the fussing is familiar too.) Maggie’s accident was caused by fancying she heard her daughter-in-law unexpectedly confessing, in a phone-in on the car radio, that she is about to embark on another marriage. Maggie and Ira do rather better than just rub along, and they handle the minor accident with laconic (his) and resilient (hers) steadiness: but just under the surface are all kinds of memories and minor subterfuges which are both recognised and, almost, unspoken.
‘Oh, this whole day was so terribly sad, the kind of day when you realised that everyone eventually got lost from everyone else.’ They have an argument, Maggie sets out, determined to escape: but of course Ira is back within a few minutes and they’re together again. The funeral is one of those old boys’/old girls’ reunions, where former loves and feuds are uneasily renewed. The widow wants it to be a replay of her wedding, with Maggie and Ira singing ‘Love is a Many-Splendored Thing’ again. Maggie co-operates, Ira doesn’t. The whole ceremony is terrible – protracted, sweatily embarrassing, redolent of everything that’s wrong with the past and the class of ’56. It is exceptionally well recorded by Anne Tyler.
That is the mark of Breathing Lessons throughout – the keen notation of detail, both sardonic and affectionate, with the two colourings often indistinguishable. The place is Middle America, East Coast-style, but it’s also the dead-centre of almost everywhere else, from Surrey to Japan, if not from China to Peru. Middle-class culture, among the middle-aged, is almost as homogeneous now as the uniforms of the Young – and, being middle-aged, much steadier, less volatile, though no less sad.
Then we move into the flawed lives of the young. Fiona, Maggie and Ira’s daughter-in-law, is estranged from their son Jesse, an unsatisfactory drifter. Maggie, on impulse, decides that she and Ira will drop in on Fiona and granddaughter Leroy on the way back from the funeral. She blunders in on old arguments, old recriminations, old resentments – in fact everything Jesse sees as marriage: ‘same old song and dance’. Ira isn’t much help, averring to Fiona of Maggie: ‘She thinks the people she loves are better than they really are, and so then she starts changing things around to suit her view of them.’
The movement of the book is circular, though not quite in the way that Maggie sees her own life: ‘It forever repeated itself, and it was entirely lacking in hope.’ Nor does it wholly reflect Ira’s view: ‘He was lonely and tired and lacking in hope and his son had not turned out well and his daughter didn’t think much of him, and he still couldn’t figure where he had gone wrong.’ There is a kind of hope, in the end. Survival is a blessing. Nothing is quite as bad as it seems. Anne Tyler manages to be both buoyant and unsaccharine about such truisms, acutely aware of fumbling decencies in the welter of brand-names.
Even a bottle of shampoo carries a motto: ‘Brings back the fullness that time has taken away.’ Under the grumbling inexorability of families and familiarity, there’s a sense of stoical renewal too.
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