Chalcot Crescent, By Fay Weldon

Fay Weldon's new narrator has a twinkle in her eye
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The Independent Culture

Right at the start of Chalcot Crescent, as our heroine, Frances, and her grandson, Amos, are hiding from the bailiffs on the stairs of her house, the 80-year-old narrator tells her descendant: "It may be... that I deserve my fate." Frances is a faded writer known for her early feminist novels. She is the little sister Weldon would have had, a foreword tells us, had her mother not had a miscarriage when Fay was two years old. In the novel, big sister Fay is a benign presence, who works in advertising and gets her boyfriends stolen by the precocious younger sibling.

Frances, as she tells Amos, has written "a few words on paper which, if they did anything at all, disrupted society, upset the natural balance of the genders, trained women to despise men, and so on". Then she adds: "But I am only trying the words out for size. I do not believe them."

In interviews she has given about the new novel, Weldon has claimed to have turned her back on the feminist movement to which she once gave a voice. A lot has been made of her instruction to women to pick up men's socks. But in the same interviews, she has also slyly admitted that she sometimes makes things up. The author and her new character have a lot in common: they both lived in north London's Chalcot Crescent for many years; they both married an artist; the artist was an antiques dealer; he once took 18 aspidistras from the family home and sold them in his shop... Does Weldon believe, as Frances says, that she has "been living witness to the birth and death of feminism"? Or is she just trying out a voice for size?

Frances, you sense, narrates much of the novel with a twinkle in her eye. Much of it is less about being a woman than it is about coming to terms with being an intelligent woman who is ageing. (Weldon is 77, which seems wrong, somehow: the author of The Life and Loves of a She-Devil cannot be a granny.) But this is ageing in the spirit of that Jenny Joseph poem, "Warning": "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple..." Frances is a character who name-drops Iris Murdoch, Bernice Rubens and Angela Carter as guests at a long-ago book-launch party; who says: "If I've learned one thing in a writer's life, it's that if you can invent something, someone, somewhere else, will actually be doing it. Salman Rushdie told me so."

The novel is set in a dystopian near-future, in which a National Unity Government exerts a sinister, post-Blairite control over freedom of speech, and everyone lives on a distasteful and possibly hallucinogenic National Meat Loaf. Frances is a typically Weldonian unreliable narrator – she herself cannot remember whether things really happened or if they were just something that she wrote. And the book works best when it is knowingly light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek. It works worst when Weldon is explaining Marxism in a "Tsk-don't-you-people-learn-anything-at-school" tone, even if Frances does suggest that readers skip chapters "at will". In this tone, Weldon states some unpalatable truths; which does not mean that all the unpalatable things she says are necessarily true.

As it careers towards a seemingly apocalyptic ending, the book reveals a healthy cynicism about men, women, feminists and the alternative. "It is up to the facility analysts," Frances writes, "to decide what is memoir, what is fact, what is truth (Pilate-like, I wash my hands) or some embroidery of the truth." How much Weldon means this book is perhaps beside the point, but my guess is that she's no more post-feminism than she is post-a sense of humour.

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