Books: Fools for love of a suburban Lear
What happens when madness shatters a marriage? E Jane Dickson salutes a novel that looks into the abyss; Beloved Stranger by Clare Boylan Little, Brown, pounds 15.99, 320pp
Boylan's portrait of an old man's madness is terrible to watch. Dick's dementia is not the slight dotage of sitcoms. This is full-strength Lear- on-the-heath stuff, pathless and pitiless and destructive. Dick suffers paranoid delusions and takes to sending death threats through the post. He develops morbid sexual jealousies and tries to set fire to his wife.
For the first time, Lily finds herself unable to follow where her husband leads and is utterly disorientated by this freedom. She has read her grown- up daughter's feminist books with approval, but it has never occurred to her that Greer, Friedan et al would be speaking to her. And so she continues, even when her husband is hospitalised, to be manipulated by a kind of remote control.
All of this would be understandable, admirable even, if Lily and Dick had been truly devoted, but this is the spanner Boylan lobs into the works. As Lily is forced to consider her marriage it becomes clear, to the reader at least, that love was not the point. Boylan chips away with forensic delicacy at the accretions of old age to find the quick characters within.
Dick is revealed as a despot terrified by his wife's fluttering intimations of independence while Lily emerges as a free-thinker whose obedience springs more from kindness than fear. But this is not a feminist fairy-tale, and Boylan does not shrink from inconsistencies. Dick is kind. Lily is stubborn. Their thralldom is mutual.
A great deal of the novel takes place in Lily's head and this is, necessarily, a cluttered and claustrophobic place to be. One is glad of the fresh perspective offered by Ruth, the grown-up daughter, who, faced with her parents' impregnable closeness, sees marriage as a kind of closed order: "Girls who made so much noise together in their teens, once married fell silent like birds in the depths of winter."
Even if Ruth, a self-consciously modern woman who lives on a diet of expensive foreign foods and casual sex, sometimes seems more like a function of the plot than a real person, we are interested by her oddness and by her uncharted relationship with her father's gay psychiatrist. Boylan is an expert confounder of expectations and gradually the novel gathers the momentum of a thriller. We are made to care about septuagenarian Lily in a particular way, not just for the woman she has been but as the woman she may yet become.
Demographics indicate that we will see a rash of novels about the problems of longevity in the coming decades, and in Beloved Stranger Boylan has set a worthy standard.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Unseen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory chapter deemed 'too subversive' released
- 2 Ebola virus: It's ripped through towns – now the deadliest ever outbreak of the virus is heading for Africa's teeming cities
- 3 Joan Rivers: 'Palestinians deserve to be dead'
- 4 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
- 5 Mexican woman becomes world’s 'oldest person' at 127
Unseen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory chapter deemed 'too subversive' released
Doctor Who, Into the Dalek, review: Classic sci-fi adventure has blockbuster spectacle
Nicki Minaj suffers wardrobe malfunction during MTV VMAs performance with Ariana Grande and Jessie J
Best movies on Netflix UK and US: 32 films that will end your endless scrolling
The Leftovers, TV review: Prepare to be bewildered by the latest mystery from the creator of Lost
Robin Williams Emmys tribute led by Billy Crystal criticised for including 'racist' joke about Muslim woman
Rotherham child sex abuse scandal: Labour Home Office to be probed over what Tony Blair's government knew - and when
The Rotherham child abuse scandal is a tale of apologists, misogyny and double standards
What do immigrants really think of Britain? Polish immigrant's Reddit post goes viral
Do you realise just how foolish the UK looks?
With Douglas Carswell joining Ukip, my party has taken another giant step forward
- < Previous
- Next >