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
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BELOVED Stranger is a quaint title for Clare Boylan's terse and truthful book about married love. The ties that bind Dick and Lily Butler after 50 years of marriage in the same Dublin suburb have grown into their flesh like too tight wedding rings. They have become their marriage, a two-headed creature of compromise and small concessions. Dick pares his wife's corns when her feet are bad and Lily makes him the semolina she secretly hates. All in all, it feels like love. But when Dick, solicitous responsible Dick, goes mad, the emotional dam Lily has built and spent her life containing is swept away.

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.