Books: A portrait of marriage, madness and men in pyjamas

Beloved Stranger by Clare Boylan Little, Brown pounds 16.99

With the vogue for confessional writing apparently on the wane, it is intriguing that the subject of Clare Boylan's latest novel, the degeneration of an elderly father into manic depression, is said to have been inspired by a real-life family incident. A year or so ago, much would have been made of the effect of this on other family members, perhaps along the lines of Linda Grant's Remind Me Who I Am, Again or Blake Morrison's And When Did You Last See Your Father? But Boylan's fictionalising of an often frightening illness has gone beyond the trauma of its effects to wider themes: the demands and rewards of marriage, love and loss, female autonomy.

Dick and Lily Butler are a long-married couple in their 70s when Dick's extraordinarily rapid slide into manic depression begins. From signing cheques for thousands of pounds to complete strangers he meets in the street, to imagined persecution from all quarters, he finally and dramatically turns on his beloved wife one night with a shotgun. Lily's resistance to having him committed is coupled with a fear of independence after years of compromise and cohabitation, but urged on by her daughter Ruth and psychiatrist Tim Walcott, she is forced to yield and in one particularly painful scene watches as the police remove her husband from the family home.

Boylan is excellent on a number of aspects here. She combines with perfect balance not only the terror of a mind descending into madness, but the darkly comic behaviour of a man who is utterly convinced that his 76-year- old wife is having a rampant affair with the young, homosexual psychiatrist ("It is not fair for a man to have to face another man when he is ill and in his pyjamas"). Her observations on the conventionalities of an old-fashioned marriage, where a wife submitted to the greater wisdom of her husband, are neither trite nor naive, captured in the details of their life together where a husband can still control the family finances from his bed in a mental hospital.

The frustration felt by Ruth, 41 and single, towards her mother's acceptance of her way of life also rings true (even if her relationship with Walcott at times feels a little too staged and self-conscious), as does Lily's own ambivalent and gradual reawakening as an independent woman once Dick has been committed - a reawakening she once almost contemplated earlier on in their marriage. Now lonely for the dominating half of her partnership ("the repetitive female tasks that were taken for granted by men and children ... she now saw as a prayerful litany"), she recognises and accepts herself as a product of her time in a way that her daughter cannot. Boylan presents the complexities of marriage, with its stolen moments and hidden stories, in a sympathetic but clear light, a gentle tyranny that Lily is unsure whether to celebrate or repudiate.

While a fictional account may not have the easy pull of the confession, or the insistent rummaging around the depths of the soul in the first person, its mapping of the broader picture can prove just as illuminating and just as moving. This insightful playing-out of a marriage approaching its close is both tender and clear-eyed, attentive to detail while keeping larger themes in tow, a well-paced narrative with a poetic sensibility.

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