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Chalcot Crescent, By Fay Weldon
Friday 18 September 2009
Back in the 1970s, my parents rented their house in Primrose Hill to Fay Weldon. Then, as now, she was charming, shrewd and prone to stirring up trouble. One complaint in an interview about the furnishings provoked the kind of parental umbrage now reserved for feminists.
So it was with some trepidation that I saw she had named her latest novel Chalcot Crescent, and peopled it with a narrator who lives in a house a few doors along from ours. Would my mother's hoard of wheezing Hoovers reappear? Would, for that matter, my mother?
Thankfully, no: the narrator, Frances, is Fay's stillborn sister who lives in a parallel future London of 2013, where the recession has caused Britain to become a dictatorship.
As an 80-year-old novelist, she has achieved most of the things the real-life Fay (here a cookery writer banished to Canberra) has done, but with a twist. It is Frances, not Fay, who loves and loses "Karl", the antique-dealer husband from whom the real-life Fay had separated when she rented my parents' house.
In the novel, Frances blithely seduces him away from Fay, so that two women get their hearts broken. As with The Life and Loves of the She-Devil and The Cloning of Joanna May, Weldon's mischievous blend of fact and fiction produces a hybrid that is at once futuristic satire, tragedy and tongue-in-cheek memoir which contains "some embroidery of the truth."
The plot is bonkers, but enormous fun because in this parallel world the personal really is the political.
Frances's extended family turns out to be at the heart of sinister plots orchestrated by the dictatorial NUG government. One of her daughters is married to Victor, responsible for the addictive, drug-enhanced National Meat Loaf, which is rumoured to be made of reconstituted human flesh.
As in the actual post-war Britain which the real Fay encountered, capitalism has come full circle, and the populace have everything rationed.
With monitoring by CCTV, this is a version of Nineteen Eighty-Four – but some of Frances's grandchildren are fighting back, using the communal garden created (improbably) from the tiny plots at the back of Chalcot Crescent to exit into another street. "Nothing changes. The rent became the mortgage, that was all," Frances muses.
A suspicious and shrewd old woman, Frances interweaves her memories over five decades with speculative chapters and mini-scripts about the way her children live, and many quips concerning biology, age, fate and the nature of fiction. "When people complain that I am cynical, I say, but I am not cynical, I am just old, I know what is going to happen next," she tells us, gloomily.
Once rich and successful, she is now poor and overlooked, hiding from the bailiffs in "the end of times", predicting that the affluence and froth which has lasted most British adults' life will not come again. As in Margaret Atwood's fantasies, these prophecies are very much the product of an author who has run out of optimism, if not creative energy.
Where her best-known novels were satirical riffs on sexual jealousy, Chalcot Crescent is about a fragmented family and society viewed from the perspective of age and disillusion.
The sunny romanticism that made The Hearts and Lives of Men her most charming novel (and one set in a very similar milieu in Primrose Hill) is gone, and some readers will regret that. Nevertheless, it's a persuasive fable: sinister, clever, funny and vintage Weldon. Why hasn't she been made a Dame?
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