Prolonging her absence

Danny Karlin

  • The Wimbledon Poisoner by Nigel Williams
    Faber, 307 pp, £12.99, March 1990, ISBN 0 571 14242 7
  • The Other Occupant by Peter Benson
    Macmillan, 168 pp, £12.95, February 1990, ISBN 0 333 52509 4
  • Possession by A.S. Byatt
    Chatto, 511 pp, £13.95, March 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3260 4

Henry Farr is – or, as it turns out, is not – the ‘Wimbledon Poisoner’ of Nigel Williams’s title. He is a Pooterish solicitor, middling and muddling his way through life; the plot concerns his repeated farcical failure to murder his awful wife, bumping off (he thinks) other innocent people instead. Then, as the plot unravels and a real poisoner shows his hand, Henry discovers that his wife is not so awful after all. Two kinds of decision mark the outset and outcome of this sequence of events, in the course of which Henry moves from tentative dimness to self-possession. In the book’s opening words, ‘Henry Farr did not, precisely, decide to murder his wife. It was simply that he could think of no other way of prolonging her absence from him indefinitely.’ But when the book closes, Henry faces this very prospect of indefinite togetherness with equanimity: ‘He thought about Elinor, and why he was still with her and what it would be like in the weeks and months and years to come ... Killing her would have been a very stupid thing to have done. There was, he decided, as he turned over to address himself to sleep, quite a lot of mileage in her yet.’

Williams is a clever writer, as this neat framing device suggests, and the book has ambitions to be more than a protracted joke at the expense, or on the side, of a hen-pecked cack-handed husband. It has literary pretensions – epigraphs courtesy of Voltaire, W.S. Gilbert and Pirandello – and there are suggestions of a darker, more astringent fable shadowing the good old-fashioned satire of suburban life. When he reveals himself, the real psychopath turns out to have madder and nastier ideas about poison than Henry’s, which seem by contrast inconsequentially domestic. ‘There’s the Paki poison, isn’t there? There’s the Jew poison and the Arab poison and all the other poisons that flood in and change the chemistry of the country. So that Wimbledon isn’t Wimbledon any more but somewhere else ...’

It’s hard, though, to see the book in terms of an intellectual black comedy when so many of its routines are so unthinkingly comfortable and familiar – the approving image of Elinor as Henry’s old banger, for example. The whole book is marked by an empty ornateness and jocular colloquialism (‘prolonging her absence from him indefinitely’, ‘address himself to sleep’, ‘quite a lot of mileage’).

Williams has chosen safe targets and a chortling style quite at odds with the intelligence and sophistication he seems to be claiming in other respects. The pecking of Henry, needless to say, is done by a feminist hen who attends a therapy group – the subject of much male cackling. Elinor leaves notes around the house for Henry – ‘Why do you not understand my needs as a woman? ... I am afraid of the male violence that is in you ... my rights as a woman are violated by your obscene masculinity!’ – and Williams clearly expects us to find these ridiculous, not realising that they show up the parodist more than the target. Other stock characters creak wincingly about the stage: the ignorant physician (‘There was no chance that Donald would diagnose thallium poisoning. Donald couldn’t diagnose a common cold’), the lumpish child (‘She went to piano. She went to ballet. She went to drama classes. She went to lessons in drawing, ice-skating, junior aerobics and many other skills which she had absolutely no hope of acquiring’), even the Man with a Funny Name (the salesman who sells Henry his ignobly sensible Volkswagen Passat is called Frobisher-Zitgermans). Perhaps it is unEnglish of me to find all this unfunny.

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