'Mrs Hibbert was a Friend." The short sentence beginning Margaret Forster's compassionate new novel Is There Anything You Want? encompasses the heart of her story. Set in a northern town, it revolves around several women connected to each other and to the same hospital, through either illness or work. For Mrs Hibbert, Thursdays at St Mary's provide an opportunity to preside. Mrs Hibbert likes doing good and enjoys the gratitude of those she assists in finding their way around the labyrinthine hospital corridors.
As a Friend, Mrs Hibbert is on the patients' side, a stranger who wishes them well. She inspires little affection from her acquaintances, however, and her desire for intimacy takes the form of curiosity, even nosiness. A tragic lack of curiosity about her own, dead husband has led to the way she is now - but that remains a secret that her detractors will never share.
Mrs Hibbert is a survivor, as are all the characters in this book, from the mentally fragile vicar to the mouse-like Dot, married to a tyrannous invalid. Then there are the three women who have had breast tumours removed. Daydreaming Edwina loses herself in biographies about holocaust victims because it makes her "more respectful of her own survival". Rachel, a self-sufficient lawyer, can only escape her cancer by literally rising above it and taking gliding lessons, while the fat and disfigured Ida complains about everything but loves to sing in church because her voice at least is still beautiful.
These women cope alone, through choice or necessity. Edwina, annoyed by her husband's determined cheerfulness, remains remote from everything. By not breaking down she believes she shows "some small measure of courage". Rachel refuses to tell anyone about her illness. She must always appear in control. When a doctor refuses to be taken in by her sang-froid she's angry, for it makes things harder to bear. Ida, meanwhile, won't discuss with her loving husband the self-pity and terror which overcome her, preferring instead to inflict awkward weeping sessions on the vicar.
Forster excels at depicting ordinary lives. In this beautifully controlled novel, those who cannot articulate their emotional problems are eaten away by them. Forster's characters appear touchingly, recognisably unfulfilled. While some want to test themselves (Edwina dreams of self-sacrifice) or find themselves tested (Mrs Hibbert nurses her niece Chrissie who suffers a breakdown), some put others to the test (Ida punishes the vicar for his apparent lack of empathy) or shun the constant testing that life forces on them (Chrissie gives up being a doctor in the oncology unit).
We all crave something. What it is we cannot always explain. The vicar says to the distraught Ida, "What is it you wanted?" He avoids taking on her emotional burden by failing to ask how he can help. Despite her own shortcomings, Mrs Hibbert recognises that people are "full of want" and need kindness, support, sympathy. Whatever the answer, we should still ask the question. That's what friends are for.
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