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The Possession Of Mr Cave, by Matt Haig
An enthralling addition to the literature of demented protagonists
Tuesday 20 May 2008
Hearing Reuben's wail on the baby monitor, burglars raiding Cave Antiques threaten to harm the children upstairs if a £50,000 pair of inkstands is not produced. Thomas Cave hesitates. His wife Helen bars their way, only to be killed.
Fifteen years later, Thomas arrives just too late to save Reuben from falling to his death in what appears to be gang bullying. "My heart must have wept," Cave records. He had exiled Reuben from his affections as the cause, however innocent, of Helen's death.
Teenage Reuben's wintry discontent at this injustice had been sharpened by the summery attention lavished upon his twin sister Bryony. Reuben endured the rough York comprehensive while Bryony went to a fee-paying girls' school. The downside for Bryony is her father's Victorian proprieties, manifested in a creepy protectiveness that, after Reuben's demise, becomes suffocating. "Reuben had died because I hadn't known enough," Cave judges. "With you, I was going to know everything."
Stickler turns stalker as Cave embarks on a nasty harassment of his daughter in an attempt to isolate her from the usual distractions of adolescence. But at crucial moments, the "black mist" descends, and Cave is fleetingly gripped by the spirit of Reuben that seems to harbour malicious intent toward Bryony.
The Possession of Mr Cave is a clever splicing-together of these two manias in the form of a regretful confession by Cave to Bryony. Matt Haig's often darkly comic detail of Cave's tyrannies, which seek to possess his daughter as though she were one of his precious antiques, is punctuated by the escalating menace of Reuben's shade.
This is familiar unhallowed ground for Haig. His The Dead Fathers Club followed the anxious vacillations of 11-year-old Philip Noble as his father's ghost goads him towards murdering Uncle Alan. This playful reinvention of Hamlet's dilemma followed Haig's courageous debut, The Last Family in England, which recast Henry IV Part I with a pack of dogs. The Possession of Mr Cave eases off on Haig's Shakespeare habit without going cold turkey: Bryony has a sly balcony scene without playing the full Juliet, and much of Cave's hubris and language is rooted in the tragedies.
Beneath these literary flourishes, Cave's grotesque zeal commands the reader's almost voyeuristic attention, and delivers an enthralling addition to the literature of demented protagonists.
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