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.
Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beachart
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Pro-Russian rebel 'admits to shooting down plane'
- 2 Israel has discovered that it's no longer so easy to get away with murder in the age of social media
- 3 Israel-Gaza conflict: The myth of Hamas’s human shields
- 4 Amy Winehouse unpublished 2004 interview: ‘Ten years from now I’ll be 30, so I’ll maybe have one baby’
- 5 Dutch paedophile club to fight their ban at the European Court of Human Rights
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Vladimir Putin is given 'one last chance' to end hostilities in Ukraine
The 'scroungers’ fight back: The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Ukrainian military jet was flying close to passenger plane before it was shot down, says Russian officer
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Massive rise in sale of British arms to Russia
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: victims’ bodies bundled in black bags and loaded onto trains