Lesley Glaister has given us an updated, if rather predictable, Bluebeard for the 21st century with this latest premonitory tale. Her Bluebeard may be an Aussie pharmacist living in the outback with a troubled wife he keeps in a shed and a rather interesting selection of photographs of past female assistants, instead of bloodied women in the cellar, but he is every bit as threatening as his mythical forebear. You just can't help wishing that Glaister's heroine, the somewhat implausibly slow Cassie, had read her fairytales too, then she might have picked up on the warning signs a little earlier.
Cassie is in a failing relationship with sexy, errant artist boyfriend Graham. Desperate to pin him down to marriage and babies, she hits on the idea of travelling to Australia, where the great open spaces and an intimate relationship with nature will either make or break them. She answers the ad that Larry has placed, asking for a housekeeper to live in the outback, and discovers that art-teaching duties would be helpful too. She gives Graham an ultimatum, and the next thing they know, the pair of them are flying over sundrenched desert on the way to Woolagong Station, near Perth.
When they arrive, they are given basic accommodation that provides neither flushing toilet nor bathing facilities and they find that there are no modern forms of communication such as the radio, television, telephone or computer there either. Mad-wife-in-the-attic is the permanently doped-up Maya who likes to wander round in the nude, and next-door neighbour Fred is a lonesome individual responsible for the deaths of his wife and children in a car accident.
Soon the heat and isolation take their toll on the couple and their relationship unravels all over the place: Graham quickly becomes antagonistic to Larry, who makes little secret of his attraction to Cassie. The first real warning sign that something is amiss (if the absence of a telephone and the fact that none of her letters home, delivered to the nearest town on a weekly basis, are ever answered isn't enough for her) comes when Larry offers Cassie some drugs to put in Graham's food, pills that he says will help "stabilise" him and turn him into the kind of boyfriend she wants.
That Larry is clearly suspect from the moment she meets him, with eyebrows that "make him look devilish with the wiry licks at the end", not only makes Cassie look a bit of a fool (thereby compromising our sympathy for her), but also renders Glaister's plot far too predictable. We know that Larry is not to be trusted - why else would he want to be so unnecessarily far from civilisation? Maya drops hints of other girls when she momentarily mistakes Cassie for someone called Lucy who used to work there, and Fred actually warns Graham to get as far away from Woolagong as he can.
Glaister is excellent on relationship dynamics and the hot, oppressive atmosphere of her modern-day fairytale almost causes steam to rise from the pages. But the fact that we know where it is all headed from the very first page neutralises those feelings of fear she is trying so hard to foster in her reader. As a result, she gives us a routine nightmare, with no shocks or surprises to make us jump out of our safe, comfortable seats, and a Bluebeard who never quite extends beyond the confines of his fairytale dimensions.
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