Growing up

Dinah Birch

  • Passing on by Penelope Lively
    Deutsch, 210 pp, £10.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 233 98388 0
  • The man who wasn’t there by Pat Barker
    Virago, 158 pp, £10.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 86068 891 7
  • The Sugar Mother by Elizabeth Jolley
    Viking, 210 pp, £11.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 670 82435 6
  • Give them all my love by Gillian Tindall
    Hutchinson, 244 pp, £11.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 09 173919 5
  • Storm in the Citadel by Kate Saunders
    Cape, 293 pp, £12.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 224 02606 2

Growing up means leaving a family behind, and the novel has built itself around the diversity of separations that make maturity happen. It follows that any prospect of a universal rebellion against the family would be bad news for fiction. You can’t leave parents behind if they were no more than discredited ghosts in the first place. It’s tempting to suspect that an erosion of patriarchal authority had made today’s novelists more anxious about the staying power of the family than they used to be. There is plenty of evidence for such a thesis. But too much confidence in deducing a social revolution from chronicles of fathers found wanting or mothers that fail might be rash, for discontent with the family has been as persistent as the family itself. You don’t have to look very deeply into the history of fiction to discover delinquent parents. The fact is that astute writers, from Defoe onwards, have always known that families are at their most tenacious when they fall short of what we feel entitled to expect.

Penelope Lively has never been reluctant to identify with the domestic proficiencies of English fiction. Writing for children has been among its most assured traditions, and it may have been Lively’s numerous books for young readers that first led her to brood on what we need to learn from families, and how that learning can go wrong. The most robust character in her patient new novel, Passing on, is a mother who is not there. Dorothy Glover, a woman of formidable selfishness, is dead. She had three children: Helen, resigned to middle-aged unfulfilment; Edward, who has displaced his meek passions into worries about the environment; and the rebellious Louise, the only one who has succeeded in producing a family of her own. It soon becomes clear that Dorothy’s emotional ruthlessness has mangled the lives of her offspring. Even in death, she stalks their activities, mocking her elder daughter’s attempts to establish a belated independence. Helen begins to uncover some chilling episodes of family history. Dorothy had hidden, but not destroyed, a love letter to Helen that might have led to a marriage – Helen finds it carelessly concealed in an old corduroy jacket. The only dress in which Helen had been able to overcome teenage gaucheness had also, it turns out, been locked away. Meanwhile, the hapless Edward had been left to his own inadequate devices. Where was Daddy while all this parental chicanery and indifference was going on? ‘Distant, hazy, dead Daddy. Long since drowned out by other voices, other opinions; bleached now to a faded outline, a few mannerisms, a vague remembered preference for anchovy paste as opposed to jam. Could a lifetime be reduced to that?’ Timorous in life, Daddy has committed the ultimate act of parental neglect by retreating into a faintly recalled death.

A series of private misfortunes leads to a kind of liberation for these depressed and ageing children. Phil, an unruly nephew, comes to stay in their shabby house. He becomes a saving force, as Dorothy’s grumpiness begins to dim, like her husband’s futile amiability, into the distance of memory. Helen learns that she can make her own choices, even if they don’t amount to more than saying no, while Edward is forced into a bleak confrontation with his own nature. Both come to terms with diminished expectation, soberly resolving to make the best of what is left. ‘They saw that nothing is to be done, but that something can be retrieved. Both sniffed the air; each, gingerly, made resolutions.’

The penetrating particularity with which self-recognition in Helen and Edward is traced goes some way towards redeeming what would otherwise be a dispiriting tale. Our lives are not what they might have been, but they are not worthless either. We are asked to respect the integrity that might lie behind the quiet compromises of defeat, and it’s a tribute that’s hard to deny. Harder still, though, not to feel a covert sympathy for the outrageous spite of the defunct Dorothy. Never very perky, the novel droops still further after her final withdrawal into the silence of mortality. Even in a deceased condition, she has more go in her than the supposedly defiant Phil, who is chiefly interesting as a speculation on what William Brown might have been like if he’d ever been allowed to reach adolescence (‘Basically, I jus’ eat fish and chips’). Passing on speaks persuasively about the echoing spaces of remembrance, and the sad contractions of a life in which we all find ourselves having to make do. About the unexhilarating compensations that might remain, however, it is a good deal less convincing.

Pat Barker has also written, with more anger and much less decorum, about the confinements that hedge us in. Her novels have all been versions of the same intense story: working-class families or, more specifically, the women of such families, contending with the inequities of poverty and ignorance. Men have always existed on the margins of her narratives. Etiolated and ineffective, they are seen only in relation to the lives of sturdier mothers, wives, sisters or daughters. As a rule they die or disappear, fading out of the story rather like the absent father in Lively’s Passing on. Now Pat Barker has both confronted and reversed this attribute of her fiction. Her latest novel, The man who wasn’t there, focuses on a boy’s relation with the father he has never known. What does it mean to mould your life on a man who isn’t there?

Pat Barker answers this question in terms which will be familiar to readers of her earlier books, for one of the conclusions to emerge from this work is that to be a boy lost in a hostile and repressive world may not, after all, be wholly dissimilar from being a girl in the same world. The most unforgettable episode in her first book, Union Street (1982), deals with a girl led into disaster by the fantasy she constructs to fill the empty place of her absent father. Twelve-year-old Colin is the male reflection of this girl. Haunted by the same absence, he also creates an elaborate and consoling drama in his head. Creativity, for Pat Barker, always grows out of loneliness and loss. But such creativity may be a dangerous business. Colin’s fantasy, shaped by comic books and adventure films, is set in a schoolboy’s notion of Occupied France. Unfolding beside the squalors of a life that Colin rejects, this sustaining fiction, too, almost leads to catastrophe. The dark image of his father, a man in black, steps out of a scarcely controlled imagination and begins to dog his creator like a sinister ghost. Only when Colin is able to recognise what the man in black really represents is he able to rid himself of the self-pity and resentment which had given birth to a corrosive nightmare. Like Lively’s middle-aged children, he frees himself by exorcising the ghost of a parent. Here, the parent is not dead but nameless. Recognising that he will never know his own father, Colin arrives at a matter-of-fact wisdom. ‘So the blank space would remain blank, he thought. Well, he could live with that. People had survived far worse.’

Another resigned book, then: but a hopeful one, too. Colin has broken out of an impasse. So, hearteningly, has Pat Barker. She has always written out of an almost uncanny sensitivity to the cadences of the people she has listened to all her life. Reminding us of what unlettered women working in the North of England have had to say, she has colonised a territory which remains unaccustomed ground for the novel. But the solidity of her identity as a writer has threatened to impose its own limitations. There were too many moments in the novels succeeding Union Street to give her readers the sense of déjà lu. The man who wasn’t there proves her to be open to experiment. The solution she finds is a clever one, for since Colin’s fantasy life in wartime France is fabricated out of parody and cliché, the inauthenticity of its language confirms its function in the novel. The point might have been made less strenuously, but it is worth making. Language is what separates the density of the life which surrounds Colin from the vacuously seductive scenes which he has constructed out of his daydreams. Fantasy has its uses. But it also has its own proper limits, and the resilience of Pat Barker’s writing lies in knowing where they lie.

Elizabeth Jolley has always dealt shrewdly with the risks and pleasures of fantasy. In The Sugar Mother, she too turns to the familial complications a man might dream up for himself. Edwin Page is an academic, plugging away at English literature in an Australian university. He is married to Cecilia, a successful obstetrician. But they have no children. Edwin, contemplating images of the Madonna and child, is broody. Like Colin restlessly envisioning his unknown father, Edwin wonders whether his meagre life might be transformed by a child. ‘If he and Cecilia had had children, if they had a daughter, would their lives be different? Would there be more meaning in the antics which were part of the daily performance of living? Or would it simply be a different set of antics, as meaningless as these present ones?’ Cecilia is away for a year: on the first night of her absence, Edwin finds his narrow routine invaded by Leila and her mother, new neighbours who have locked themselves out of their house. Leila, as the reader guesses but Edwin doesn’t, is pregnant. In other ways too, she is everything that Cecilia is not: placid, large, silent, slow. Edwin wants her. Leila’s mother makes an expedient suggestion which accommodates Edwin’s vividly solacing fantasies all too readily. Leila will bear a child for Edwin and Cecilia as a surrogate mother – or, in Leila’s mother’s confused rendering of the term, a ‘sugar mother’. ‘ “Leila’ll carry, if I put it to her, Leila’ll carry for you. I’d have no trouble with Leila.” ’ Edwin, taking on his supposed biological responsibilities in this scheme with unconfined enthusiasm, understandably finds it hard to choose just the right moment to explain his procreative project to his wife – who has, as Edwin uncomfortably recalls from time to time, never expressed any discernible wish for children. Reality and fantasy at last collide in a way which the unfortunate Edwin had failed to predict.

Elizabeth Jolley is not inclined to waste reverence on the academic intellect, especially that of the literary academic. Even by her standards, however, the scale of Edwin’s naivety and folly is awesome. How, the reader is driven to ask, could anyone be so dim-witted? The triumph of The Sugar Mother is the wry sympathy with which we are led to understand exactly how. Edwin’s credulous reveries are absurd, but the pain and hunger which give rise to them are not. Nor is the depth of the love which Edwin conceives for the lumbering Leila, who combines the mother and daughter Edwin has always missed and needed. This is a novel in which the wrong-doing of all the characters is ruthlessly illuminated – for no one, with the partial exception of Daphne (an engaging addition to Jolley’s collection of exuberant lesbians), manages to behave well. Ridicule and forgiveness are bestowed on all in equal measure. What emerges from this keen-eyed comedy is a sense of compassion which touches the tragic. Anyone who might still be wondering what Elizabeth Jolley has done to earn her growing reputation could do worse than to start here.

To grieve for a baby who will never be born is one thing: to grieve for a child known and lost quite another. Gillian Tindall’s deeply meditative Give them all my love explores a father’s mourning for the early death of his daughter Marigold, killed while hitch-hiking in France. The bereaved Tom begins his reminiscent narrative in a prison cell. He is a murderer. As he recalls the processes which gave rise to his crime, we are led through the intricate paths of a tight and compulsive plot. Give them all my love has the virtues of a well-made thriller, with a good hard grip. But it is also a sustained and searchingly intelligent exploration of an abstraction: the concept of revenge. Gillian Tindall has a pleasurable feel for the texture of everyday life, but her writing is most fully engaged when she weighs the nature of moral experience. Where does the impulse to revenge come from? Is it a matter of justice, or of destructive self-assertion?

Tom’s craving for vengeance has become an obsession, fed by a long slow fire of hatred into which the reader is inexorably drawn. This is a novel which takes its time, showing us Tom as a young man, childless; the birth of his daughter and the death of his wife; what he has lost. ‘You are young, or at any rate fairly young, for such a significant portion of your life, that you never get entirely used to not being young any more. Or to the fact that the world and its inhabitants you have lost will not, like the seasons and fruits, return.’ As Tom ages, we are immersed in his gathering conviction that his loss is more than the common lot of humanity. He was robbed. Or was he? There’s room for scepticism: his sombre fancies could be no more than an attempt to fill a desolating emptiness. In one of its multiple aspects, this novel might serve as another fictional warning of the hazards of fantasy. We can’t say for sure, because we see things filtered through layers of Tom’s pain-filled memory. The only point at which the reader is allowed to step outside Tom’s troubled mind is in the concluding pages, as his lawyer muses on the death of his old client and friend. He has visited the grave where Tom lies buried beside his daughter:

 I had been there once before, on the terrible day of Marigold’s burial, but now it seemed a quiet, pleasant enough place under the summer sky. On the stone rim of the grave I left a small round pebble, which I had picked up earlier beside a road in the Creuse. In my faith we do not believe in personal immortality. And we do not say ‘forgive’, we say ‘remember’. An indestructible stone is what we leave to show respect and continuing memory for the loved dead.

The suggestion of Wuthering Heights here is not accidental. Gillian Tindall is not Emily Brontë, but she, too, is interested in the dark irrational core of consciousness. And, like Brontë, she writes outside the Christian perspective. Tom’s lawyer is Jewish, identified with a faith which, unlike the Christian, has faced the idea of revenge. This is a novel in which memory counts for more than forgiveness. Gillian Tindall throws a cold light over human motivation, as Tom moves beyond his first Christian assumptions:

It only now occurred to me, at my advanced age, that the Christian doctrine of the Redemption was a way of trying to sidestep a more basic human need – the demand for justice to be seen to be done. Avenging hosts. Wrath visited even down the generations, because the past must not be forgotten. People getting what they deserve, reaping as they have sown – the pattern of meaning working itself out inexorably over the years. A true moral constancy.

Give them all my love is not a gentle novel. It is too intellectual, and too passionate, to offer much comfort. What it does offer is moral analysis translated into fiction of a sophisticated and peculiarly intense kind. Gillian Tindall has been writing well, often extraordinarily well, for years – not always with due recognition. Her new book provides commanding confirmation of her stature.

Kate Saunders’s second novel, Storm in the Citadel, has all the exuberance and some of the uncertainty of a novelist still finding her voice. She, too, writes of fantasy, obsession and violence. Her novel ends where Tindall’s began: with the loss of a family, this time a potential family that never had a chance from the start.

Cosmo, an Irish actor of great size and small wit, harbours a passion for fellow actor Hester, who seems as virtuous as she is lovely. But these are theatrical éntanglements, and Cosmo’s occupation should have taught him that nothing is what it seems. Ill will, deception, and unhappiness in several different costumes lead to a calamitous finale. It’s always a pleasure to encounter malice evoked with real gusto, and Kate Saunders offers many such pleasures. Her savoury revelfers many such pleasures. Her savoury revelations about the business of acting are scarcely flattering to the profession, but they are engrossing and often very funny. Kate Saunders’s writing is at its most sure-footed when she is in the theatre. She is a satirist of undoubted gifts. But she is not cruel. Her noisy novel has a submerged quality of reflection, even tenderness. The reader is left with something unforeseen: a lingering sense of the pity of it.