The Monday Book: A Chance Acquaintance, By Charles Chadwick

The triumph of good over ugliness
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The Independent Culture

Charles Chadwick’s first novel, It’s All Right Now, was a huge study of the life of a suburban Everyman. One critic said it seemed to be four novellas stitched together, others that its style varied between brilliant observation and rambling banality. His new book is a short, beautifully controlled novel about the lives of two quite extraordinary people.

Elsie is so ugly that people stare in horrified fascination or turn away. She works as a cleaner, and her only pleasure is visiting National Trust gardens. She is well aware of her warped face and body; walking, she keeps “to the shadows cast by the summer trees”. Her mother wonders if she should have brought Elsie into the world.

There are other views of Elsie. Her brother Geoffrey is worried by the expensive presents she buys for his two children, who have never seen her and imagine her as “someone very rich and famous and glamorous”. Elsie sometimes spies on them. On another unannounced trip, Elsie visits her father, decaying into old age with his mistress.

But the novel is really about Elsie and Stan. One day, a man sits beside Elsie on the bus. He is horrified at her appearance but they get talking. Stan is another lone soul, a criminal just out of jail after serving 15 years for killing a rival gangster. His victim’s brother is threatening to kill him and, when Stan returns to his rooms, they’ve been trashed. By chance, he sees Elsie again and realises that her loneliness offers his only hope of sanctuary.

He confides in her and she agrees to put him up for a couple of days. To be safer, they flee to her uncle’s empty cottage in Dorset. She cooks and cleans. He manages the garden. For the first time, Elsie has someone to care for and Stan grows fond of her. They are never lovers, and this is as close, Elsie knows, that she will get to love and marriage.

Then, one morning, Elsie finds a stranger at the kitchen table. What happens next is genuinely shocking but, in this grim and touching fairy-tale, good triumphs at the end.

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