The country-house weekend is generally the stuff of literature's lighter moments. Bertie Wooster hiding among the rhododendrons, mooning after some horse-faced country lass and avoiding her gun-toting father. That kind of thing. However, rural retreats can provide writers with darker material, as Blake Morrison's latest novel illustrates to great effect.
In a nod to Philip Larkin, Morrison's opening lines set the scene for a Bank Holiday weekend from hell: "You know how it is with friends – the closer you get, the less you see them for what they are. They suck you in."
Ian, our narrator, and his wife Em are the low-rent friends of Ollie and Daisy. Primary-school teacher Ian is still in thrall to his old university pal, judging his bond with the lithe, successful Ollie as "Prole and Nob, Little and Large, Tortoise and Hare". He also remains infatuated with Daisy who, unbeknown to his wife, was briefly his girlfriend before he lost her to Ollie one fateful night in their college digs.
Two decades on and, seemingly, there are no hard feelings, so Ollie's invitation to a midsummer break in the East Anglian coastal village of Badingley is accepted. Morrison is adept at drawing out the portentous potential in the set-up. The two couples are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. "We were in Badingley in no time. And remained in no time till we left," states Ian.
This is no pastoral haven: the weekenders arrive into an environment that is more Roald Dahl than HE Bates. For a start, the accommodation isn't exactly plush. "Flaxfield Grange was a serious disappointment. 'A converted 18th-century farmhouse,' Ollie called it as he led us through the back door, but unconverted outhouse looked nearer the mark." It appears as if the preppies have had one over on the paupers.
If the house is a bind, nature itself is equal to its gloomy hold. "Swallows chizzled overhead, like wires short-circuiting. Occasional swifts, too, on their long fuse. The air crackled, as if charged. It would rain again any minute." Every hedgerow is steeped in foreboding. Rotting trees and dead owls mine the landscape. Even the seaside comes with a terrible undertow. It is not long before the accumulated secrets and jealousies harboured by the four begin to surface like the woodworm in the roof beams. The pigeonholed mistakes of the past compete with the petty annoyances of the present and, to heighten an already claustrophobic reunion, an ill-advised bet, a maladjusted teenager and a club-footed local add to the tension.
Morrison has created far more than a sinister take on the country-house novel. All his signature themes are present: the intricate complications of family life, the psychological mechanics of crime, the crassness of class boundaries and, most of all, the hypocrisies of modern masculinity. The latter, with its coarse posturing and self- delusion, is captured with perfection through the ever-shifting, perpetually competitive relationship shared by Ian and Ollie.
This is also a novel about the capricious level of trust between author and reader. Ian is happy to admit he is an unreliable narrator. "When I reconstruct the events of that weekend," he tells us, "I find it hard to be sure what I was thinking or feeling at particular points." Speech is often unclaimed, with "one or other of us" saying something momentous, leaving any attached guilt difficult to assign. This is a suspenseful thriller, but more importantly it succeeds as an exceedingly clever investigation into the strangeness of lies.Reuse content