Books: The life, times and outfits of a menopausal fag-hag

Brittle Joys by Sara Maitland Virago pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
There is a wonderfully funny moment in Sara Maitland's latest novel when the protagonist, Ellie Macauley, glass-blower extraordinaire, attends the wedding of two gay friends, Jim and Stuart. Wedding invitations have been issued in the names of their cats, Bun and Deedles, and guests and the wedding party alike have dressed up for the occasion: "Even the ceremony itself was a scoffing finger stuck out in the face of the law, since a solicitor friend of theirs represented the registrar dressed in Nazi gear. There was a confusion, for Ellie at least, as to whether this was a comment on establishment homophobia and oppression or a personal proclivity; whether it was funny or in dangerously bad taste."

Funny that Ellie should even have to wonder, but this is Maitland all over - ridiculously PC to an extent that laughter comes for precisely the wrong reasons. Immediately the hopelessly shallow Ellie finishes debating the semiotics of Nazi dress, she wonders, "But then her own outfit, in which she felt so good and for which she was receiving admiring compliments, was like all women's drag, valorising establishment masculinity. Damn." The life of a fag-hag (as Ellie is repeatedly and self-consciously identified) would seem to be full of such fashion pitfalls and possible faux-pas. It's a wonder she manages to get out of bed in the morning.

Brittle Joys feels like an 1980s story (we still have references to Margaret Thatcher), with the Ab-Fab antics of Ellie and her friend Judith and the regular lectures throughout on Aids and issues of homosexuality. None of these things has decreased in importance (even Thatcher is still around), but the flamboyance of the lifestyle Maitland gives her characters has an old-fashioned kind of superficiality so associated with that era. As a result, painful and tragic events like the death of Ellie's friend Robbie from Aids, her own split from her daughter and the failure of her marriage to the long-suffering Henry, make surprisingly little impact.

Both the novel's title and Ellie's work with glass are a nod in the direction of that superficiality, and the sense that it is every bit as real as a less transparent substance. But the coating of politically correct characters in conjunction with Ellie's ongoing dialogue with an angel only serve to reinforce that superficiality as more empty and dishonest. In one scene, Maitland juxtaposes Ellie's dinner party for her husband's middle-class friends with her longing to be out on the town with her gay friend Hugo. Ellie romanticises Hugo's night out, quite unaware that most of his friends are bitching about her, suspicious of her attention to them. For the reader, there's little to choose between a set of rather dull, superior professionals and a group of people complaining about a friend, yet it's clear where our sympathies are meant to lie.

Part of the problem with the novel as a whole is a sense that its politically correct agenda is overwhelming other interesting things Maitland has to say. Ellie is an unsympathetic character in many respects because there is a sense that her care for Aids sufferers is superficial (she fits the dying Robbie in between lunch appointments). But her escape from a strict and authoritarian upbringing in Ayrshire to make a highly successful name for herself as an artist is an intriguing echo of a background we only ever glimpse. The links with her disapproving family remain broken and can only be mended after her difficult mother has died.

Maitland tantalisingly offers us the image of a woman as she is approaching middle age: at one point, Ellie wonders if the angel she sees is a result of a menopausal imagination. There are important questions about the direction she must follow, what it means to be maturing when your home and family desert you. But again, these are more tangential issues which are repeatedly smothered - just as the novel begins to go a little deeper it veers away again into politically correct forays which become increasingly irritating. Maitland has sacrificed a genuinely revealing mirror for a glass front which tells us little.

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