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.

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...