BOOK REVIEW / Marriage: a health warning

Michael Arditti on a young gay writer's acute portrait of a heterosexua l couple; The Law of Enclosures by Dale Peck Chatto and Windus, pounds 15.99

The focus of Dale Peck's debut novel, Fucking Martin, may have lain on the titular verb, but almost as crucial was the narrator's relationship with his parents, Henry and Beatrice, And yet, by dint of the novel's subjunctive mode, with the family dramas and sexual encounters being reviewed from different perspectives, the characters had little chance to develop and Henry and Beatrice remained particularly sketchy. Their more detailed portraits are the subject of Peck's second book.

It is brave of a young writer best known for his gay writing to tackle a marriage. As with Fucking Martin, Peck's structure is experimental. In alternate - yet contemporaneous - chapters, he portrays the young Henry and Beatrice through their early marriage and the old Hank and Bea, 40 years on, when their love is as diminished as their Christian names.

Peck movingly depicts the misfit match between Beatrice, recently released from domestic drudgery and Henry under sentence of death from a brain tumour that is wrongly rumoured to be Aids. After Henry's successful surgery, they marry, drop out of college, take routine jobs and find temporary solace in drink and adultery. The stages of their decline, while not detailed in the narrative, are made implicit in their subsequent despair and in Bea's honest but horrific: "Oh, Hank. You should have just died." In later years, their children refuse to visit them, and their closest relationship is with another unhappy couple, Stan and Myra. After Stan dies, Hank decides that they should move north and build a house next to Myra's trailer. When the house is built, to specifications that are clearly symbolic rather than practical, Henry and Beatrice (for their names have reverted), experience a rebirth of love.

Peck displays remarkable empathy with his elderly protagonists. Myra laments that, "We're the last generation to have long meaningless marriages. Wives waiting for their husbands to die, husbands waiting for their wives to die", and the book is shot through with the spiritual souring of loveless relationships. The moment of Henry and Beatrice's sexual renewal is handled with great grace. The trouble is that much of the writing is stuck in a state of stasis. Once the spring/ autumn contrast becomes clear, as it does very quickly, the novel goes nowhere. The structure sets up a series of simple juxtapositions, while the almost exclusive concentration on Henry and Beatrice is not justified by their intrinsic interest. Peck rises skilfully to the emotional heights, but fails to make the mundane compelling.

The decision to portray both past and present events as contemporaneous is equally restricting. Henry and Beatrice are removed from history. Nothing shapes them beyond the domestic world of their marriage. Nothing wider can shape them because time and place in any meaningful sense do not exist. Peck himself seems aware of the problem when he makes Hank's mother reply to Bea's "This is the Nineties" with "This is not the Nineties, Bea. This is Long Island"; but merely setting it in a backwater does not fill the void.

By far the finest writing comes when Peck abandons his narrative in favour of a memoir of his own parents. The precise purpose of this section in the overall scheme - whether it is to emphasise the fictional nature of the rest or to show how the rows between Peck's father and his four wives feed into the portrayal of Hank and Bea - is unclear. Nevertheless, in his description of his mother's early death and the stories he made up to cope with it, Peck writes with an intensity and commitment lacking elsewhere. Ultimately, it is the author's story, not his fiction, that captures the reader's heart.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
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.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy