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
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice