How Far Do You Go?

‘Tell him to man up,’ said the taxi driver as we sat in the usual London traffic jam. ‘That’s what he needs to do: man up. Take me for instance. I’ve just divorced my wife of twenty-two years, but do you see me crying?’

We inched forward in the line of nose to tail cars and I tried to concentrate on what he was saying because it was clear he meant well. It was just hard to hear him over the beating of my heart, and hard to sit still when I really wanted to launch myself out of the cab and run away.

I had come to London because my son had told me he was feeling suicidal. This was the second time he had used the dreaded word. The first he had been embarrassed and tried to downplay his emotions, saying he realised it was just the sort of signpost that indicated the need to take action. But since then, a series of long conversations had taken place, each time his emotions had reached a pitch that he couldn’t handle. And each time, as his grief rose steadily to the surface while the initial shock receded, he had been more violent in his speech, more obviously devastated, more deeply upset.

I paid off the cabbie, who drove away with further reminders about ‘manning up’ and stood outside my son’s student accommodation block, consumed with anxiety about what I would find and what I would need to do. I felt wholly responsible, and knew at the same time it was the last thing my son would want. I knew it bothered him that he could not go through this alone; he would much rather be self-sufficient in his sorrow. But he couldn’t. And he turned to me because I have some sort of experience at dealing with this sort of thing; I wouldn’t tell him to man up, or scorn him, or chide him, or try and jolly him out of it. But nor would it be like the movies, with me producing some wonderfully wise maxim at the right moment that would turn him around. It would be ordinary and messy; he would fight me because it got rid of some of his anger, and be inconsolable as it got rid of some of his grief, and I would soak that excess up, because it’s effective and what else do you do?

I have come to the conclusion that emotion is a form of compacted energy, and that it can be passed from person to porous person. And when you have that sort of contagious, toxic energy inside you, it turns into anxiety and, in my case, evil hormomes.

That day seemed to be a turning point with my son, and afterwards his situation improved quite swiftly. He found for himself, and as if from nowhere, the courage to start making things better. For a while we were all happy to my exquisite relief. And then I seem to have made the fatal error of relaxing, as instantly I was down with a stubborn infection. It still returns as soon as I do anything notably energetic. Mostly I haven’t because I’ve been bone weary, and more anxious than normal. When I sit and meditate (which I should do more often), I can feel six months of tension leeching out of me with the density of the ectoplasm that swirled around a 19th century medium.

Then last week, a tragedy. One of my closest friend’s husband had an unexpected but massive heart attack. He never regained consciousness and died three days later. This is bad enough in itself, but my friend suffers from advanced multiple sclerosis. She needs a scooter to get around and can’t always use her hands. She is able to teach still at the university, but had relied on her husband for cooking and shopping and picking her up when she fell over. When her motorised scooter broke down on her way home a few weeks ago, she could ring him and he rescued her. They have a teenage daughter.

Now which of us would that taxi driver command to man up, I wonder? It would be me, right? If I can do something to help my friend, shouldn’t I do it? Well, I figured that my friend’s widowhood would last longer than this particular lapse in my health. There would be plenty of time down the line to support her, and my recent experience of grief is that it lasts a long time and grows more acute before it goes to sleep. Plus, something I could barely admit: when I saw my son that last time, I had confessed that I was growing to hate our conversations because I felt like his emotional punchbag. I’d kept my own feelings to myself up until that point, but I was running out of storage capacity inside. I felt intensely guilty afterwards, and afraid that I had ruined a necessary outlet for him. But it was also true; I forget myself in that sort of intense interaction, and the other person forgets me too. Despite the fog of concern and guilt, it seemed imperative now to remember myself.

Then today a meeting was called for the friends of my friend, a strategy camp to consider what practical aid can be provided. I excused myself though said I would certainly hope to help in the months to come. Another couple wrote to say that they had cut short their stay in Spain (supposed to last to mid-September) and were flying back to help. It then transpired that the wife (who has some severe health issue herself) can’t stand or sit for more than ten minutes and could we please meet somewhere with a car park nearby and provision for her to lie down?

And there’s me staying home because I’m a bit tired. Let me tell you, being selfish is tougher than it sounds.

 

 

More on Women’s Fiction

the postcardLast year I was sent a novel by an author called Leah Fleming and I didn’t really get on with it. So when I was offered her new novel, The Postcard, this year, I hesitated. But I decided I’d give her another go and when I was under the weather a few weeks back, it looked the sort of undemanding book that was fit for the occasion. And in fact it kept me good company over three days. This is another novel that would be classified ‘women’s fiction’, not least because it deals with the kind of situation that only happened to women – how to deal with single parenthood back in the 1930s and 40s when it was a disgrace to be an unwed mother and an impossible economic conundrum too. The result, as in this case, was often a great deal of heartache and distress for all concerned.

But my feeling is that this is also called ‘women’s fiction’ because it takes a broad and multi-generational view in order to find resolution, closure and contentment, in other words, a happy ending. I was very struck once by a survey I read about that sought to identify gender difference at the level of fantasy. A group of people were given the start of a story – two trapeze artists in a circus tent are performing a routine when they fail to catch hands and one starts to fall. Apparently there was a distinct difference in the story conclusions they received. The men mostly chose an apocalyptic ending – death, disaster, even the tent going up in flames. The women mostly managed some sort of imaginative contortion to ensure the dropped artist was saved. The book that contained the survey dated from the 80s or 90s, and it may be that cultural attitudes have changed since then and the gender gap is less pronounced, but it was an intriguing finding. I would definitely have saved the trapeze artist in my own imagination, but I don’t always want a happy ending to the novels I read. So it seems to me that the whole idea of ‘women’s’ fiction rests on a narrow cultural view of women that emphasises their nurturing, tender and romantic nature – a nature that is both idealised and scorned in society, but which is definitely catered to commercially.

Anyhoo, the story begins in 2002 in Australia, with Melissa Boyd’s father asking her on his death bed to discover the truth of his origins. All he owns is a box of decaying keepsakes that includes a postcard addressed to someone named Desmond and written by his mother, promising him she’ll be home soon. Then we travel back in time to the 1920s where young Callie is growing up at the glorious Dalradnor Lodge in Scotland. She has a secure and carefree existence, brought up by her nursemaid, the Belgian Marthe, and the housekeeper, Nan Ibell. Every so often her pretty Aunt Phoebe, a Gaiety Girl dancer in London, comes to visit and spoil her with treats. Callie’s happy existence is shattered when she discovers that Phoebe is not her aunt but her mother, and she is the result of a wartime liaison. Phoebe, awkward and guilty around her own child, bungles her confession and decides simply to lift the child out of her environment and into her care, a move that only deepens Callie’s resentment.

So Callie grows up feeling both kidnapped and abandoned, and it isn’t long before she takes the first opportunity that presents itself to escape Phoebe’s authority. Inevitably escape takes the form of a foolish marriage, and before long Callie finds herself struggling to make a life in the ex-pat community in Cairo. And, destined to repeat what we don’t understand, she ends up following unwittingly in the footsteps of Aunt Phoebe, falling pregnant and taking the baby back to Scotland to bring up alone. When war breaks out again, however, Callie is approached by the secret services because of her language skills and she somewhat recklessly decides she must fulfil her duty to her country. Her choice for adventure will quickly dissolve into a harrowing ordeal with desperate consequences.

I thought this story was particularly good on the consequences of abandonment. Callie is so tangled up in her emotions over her origins that she courts abandonment at the same time as she is full of bitterness towards her mother. It takes her a whole lifetime to sort out her issues, though they are compounded in awful ways by the atrocities she lives through in the war. The war section was the part that worked less well for me as Leah Fleming does too much telling, determined to cram her pages overfull with incident. When she allowed her characters to interact in ordinary situations there was a strong narrative drive at work that kept me turning the pages. This kind of book is all about what happens next, and for the most part, I felt that the storyline was cleverly plotted, especially in the patterns and repetitions that passed down the family line through the years.

This doesn’t pretend to be great literature – it’s a solid and satisfying comfort read if you like multigenerational sagas, which in the right mood I certainly do. And I was glad to try the author again with better success.

 

Not Your Average Holiday Romance

lemongroveHelen Walsh’s The Lemon Grove is definitely going to be a Marmite book. How you feel about it will probably depend on your tolerance for Forbidden Passion; Madame Bovary is probably a good acid test. Imagine it mixed up with a holiday-from-hell narrative and you’re not so far off this succès de scandale.

Jenn and Greg Harding are at the end of an idyllic first week of holiday in their Mallorcan villa. Each year they return to Deià on the rocky west coast for the beauty of the landscape, the luscious food, their stylish accommodation. This year is going to be a little different. Usually they come out of season when it’s cooler, but here they are in the furnace heat of full summer, for Jenn’s stepdaughter, Emma, a precocious and rather spoiled 15-year-old, is flying out to join them with her new boyfriend, Nathan. Jenn and Greg have been together so long that Emma feels almost like the child of their marriage, but there are clearly fault lines of tension that reveal the scars of the family graft. Greg is only a moderately-paid academic, but he will spend lavishly, and somewhat secretively, on Emma. He is a sop for her melodramatic teenage ways, too. Whilst Jenn often feels that Emma’s drama queen antics require a bit of cold treatment, Greg is a willing audience to her every emotion. And of course, Emma is growing up and as highly-strung and volatile as any adolescent; rebellion and rejection are braided into her behaviour with her parents.

Things begin badly when Emma’s arrival catches Jenn unawares. She has been sunbathing topless and has fallen asleep, and her groggy attempts to get her clothes on over her sticky skin bring out Emma’s contempt and embarrassment. It’s only much later that Jenn realises the real reason for her anger is that Nathan saw her too. Nathan is a young Apollo with a Manchunian accent and the narrative pants and drools over him: ‘He is wearing a pair of plain blue swimming shorts, otherwise, he is naked before her. He is muscular, but graceful with it, balletic. He is shockingly pretty.’ And thus the plot of the book instantly unfurls before us. Jenn is forty-five and on the cusp of a crinkly middle-age; Nathan is forbidden fruit every which way you look at it, but he’s also gorgeous, virile and apparently hot for her. Yikes.

In all fairness to Helen Walsh this is a great deal better than one might fear. It could so easily have descended into Fifty Shades of Sunburn, but it’s infinitely classier than that. The story moves at an inexorable pace, steadily ratcheting up the tension, so that even quite ordinary holiday-making events like visiting a local market or taking a late-night swim are rimed with an aura of dread. The writing is very good; the rocky promontaries of the coastline, the self-consciously artisanal local stores of tourist regions, the succulent food, the treacherous currents of the sea are all vividly rendered and provide a suitably wild landscape with that hint of holiday dislocation against which strange and unusual things may happen.

The relationship itself is also cleverly portrayed. Walsh doesn’t bother attempting justification: Jenn knows full well she is doing a crassly stupid thing, but she can’t seem to help herself. She loves her husband, but there’s a moment when she looks at him, working at his laptop in the villa:

observing him now in the hard white glow of the desk lamp, his body has never looked so slack, so tired. The loose skin of his chest hangs down as he hunches over the pad. His skin looks lived in; soon he will be like the crones in the backstreets. His pelt will hang from his body like old pyjamas.’

It simply isn’t fair. Nathan’s peachy perfection, his taut muscular body and smooth beautiful face are a taunting sensual delight, irresistible. This isn’t about having anything in common, or admiring one another’s good qualities. It’s sheer lust.

As I’ve said before, it’s situational clichés that bother me, and I wasn’t sure how I’d get on with the older woman-younger man thing. Not because I have shockable morals, but because I have a blueprint in Colette’s amazing novel, Chéri, that I didn’t think could be surpassed. This doesn’t come anywhere near Chéri for me, and I did heave a sigh when the climax finds one of the teenagers missing in a storm. But it’s not a bad piece of beach entertainment; a narrative that holds together well, written with a lot of style, and that ends very cunningly. I’ve heard the ending described as ambiguous, but that’s just plain wrong: it’s one of those endings where one small clue tells you exactly what’s going to happen although the narrative stops short of describing it. I thought that was rather good.

Monday Miscellany

1. Finally something properly good has happened for my son. He has a job in a well-known pub in London’s West End. This was entirely his own doing – he put together a CV and went around the pubs in his vicinity, asking if any were short-staffed, gradually widening his circle. Last week he did a couple of trial shifts and today he begins behind the bar. He says the people seem nice and it’s really, really busy. I am so pleased for him; to rescue oneself is a powerful experience. I had a post half written in my head about what it’s been like these past few months, and what we’ve all learned from them, but I can’t bring myself to write it down today. I feel worn out with relief.

2. One thing, though, is that recovery is not a linear event. It is circular. Round and around we go, pressing the bruises, feeling the pain, stepping back, irresistibly drawn to pressing them again. It seems like stasis, like being stuck, but more preparation for change is going on than we imagine. The paradox is that the emotional pain gets worse every time those bruises are pressed, not better, because each time we confront the reality of what has happened with more clarity, each time we can bear to face it a little more.

3. Another paradox: I believe that if we can find someone to help us bear witness to our big emotions and then feel them without any of those complicating problems of shame or embarrassment, then we can work through emotions much faster. But it’s very, very hard to be that witness, particularly for people we love. Their pain is our pain. Watching them suffer arouses unresolved emotions of our own. And emotion exerts a huge pressure of distortion. When we are not in the same place, the emotional person seems quite mad, such is the extent of distortion. And then we long to bring their perspective back in line with the reality we’ve all agreed is sane.

4. I think we have too limited an understanding of what sanity is, and that it’s easy to be afraid of anything lying beyond those narrow confines. I think there’s far too much insistence on people being strong and happy and flawless, that this ignores the reality of what it is to be human. If we don’t acknowledge negative emotions in ourselves, then either they turn inwards and attack us with anxiety, low self-esteem, lack of trust, or else they get displaced. When people rage and rant in an excessive way, about things that are irritating or annoying, yes, but maybe not as bad as all that, then I think it’s displaced emotions coming out over some issue that feels more justified than the one that caused the emotions in the first place. And then there’s the third option: contempt or indifference towards people in pain. The urge to think oneself superior, better than that. It’s a strong position inside but ugly from the outside.

5. Hmm, I’ll stop before I actually write the post I said I wouldn’t write, but I will add that any deduction I’ve made above comes from the trial and error of getting it wrong a lot of the time. I’ve had to do a lot of learning from mistakes.

6. I must apologise for being so bad at commenting on other blogs lately. I’m reading, but my thinking-of-the-right-thing-to-say muscle seems to be weary. I’m not actually in the mood for writing much of anything.

7. I have been watching a lot of television, which is most unusual for me. Mr Litlove was competing in the town rowing races last week, which meant I could watch whatever I liked. I ended up really getting into the first season of Downton Abbey, and whilst I am probably the last person in the world to watch it, I have to say it was completely splendid. Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham is brilliant, and the casting of Mr Bates was a stroke of genius (though I fear for that man’s fate – he has the face for suffering). I really admired the way the multiple storylines were handled; only the very last episode tried to squeeze too much in. My mum has the next two series on DVD and I guess I’ll be borrowing them from her.

8.  I’ve also been enjoying the sheer madness that is Boston Legal. I think these must be the most unprofessional bunch of lawyers ever to tread the far margins of legal ethics, but once again the acting is the thing. James Spader is outrageously good; he manages to be simultaneously arrogant and supercilious and dangerous and endearing and charismatic with more integrity than all the others put together. Plus seeing William Shatner as a complete psycho is a lot of fun, and very un-Captain Kirkish.

9. We’ve also been watching Hustle, which is Mr Litlove’s favourite and the one he always votes for, when it comes to a vote. We’ve watched the first four seasons and there’s hardly been a duff episode. They’re conmen (and woman) but with Robin Hood’s philosophy and it’s a treat to find something that’s a lot of fun as well as neatly plotted and rather smart. I never tire of watching the baddies brought down. If only such prescience were available in reality!