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The Promise of Happiness by Justin Cartwright
King Lear goes to Cornwall
Friday 13 August 2004
Real families sometimes seem fictional to outsiders. Fictional families, in the English novel at any rate, seldom seem quite real. Funny or ironic, clever, yes - but seldom substantial or grand. And grandeur is what Justin Cartwright is after in this extraordinarily bold novel.
Cartwright wants to live dangerously and to have a go at the domestic saga - without the Aga. At the same time -- and this is where he ups the ante - he wants to see if he can play by "Aga rules". He has invented a modern middle-class family, anchored by a single syllable name: "Judd". No nonsense here; pike-staff plain, an English name for a quintessential English family.
Cartwright does not want to send his people up; he wants to offer glimpses of the divine in the domestic details of their lives and loves, as they go rolling towards destiny. And he pulls off his gamble magnificently. This is a funny, angry, moving novel.
Charles Judd was once an accountant, and his wife Daphne was once a full-time mother. Their three grown children are each exquisitely demanding. Aga rules require that the Judds should be afflicted by the familiar demons of middle-class melancholy: sex, drugs and retirement problems. But Cartwright keeps raising the stakes. The Judds are in ritual migratory passage: they have flown from the once-happy heights of Islington to deepest Cornwall. Only to find that their refuge by the sea, the ominously named Curlew's End, isn't what they thought it was. Paradise is on hold, and hell is just around the corner.
Charles Judd plays golf grimly, fights off the rabbits invading his garden, and is inclined, from time to time, to relieve himself upon the grave of Cornwall's famous poet, John Betjeman, who lies buried in the churchyard. Betjeman is one of the phantoms haunting this rich novel. He is the ghost of England past - when tennis rackets still went into presses, real toffs never smelt of fried fish, and Cornwall wore what "Betj" once called "a humble and West Country look".
No one is humble any more and the West Country is going west. Charles Judd loathes his little kingdom by the sea. He is furious and appalled at himself and the world, caustic about Daphne's moral dithering, her flowers and good works in the church whose graves he waters to the horror of Daphne's sharp-eyed friends. Daphne worries that her husband is going mad - and she's right: he is raving.
Indeed, such is Charles's incandescent rage at heaven as he strides the grey-green countryside, it does not seem a great surprise that he has, in a way, ruined himself for his favourite daughter, Juliet, whom he loves more than life itself. Clever, wise, beautiful, once upon a time the toast of Manhattan, his beloved Ju-Ju is in jail in the States for fencing a Tiffany stained glass window stolen from a cemetery in Queens.
Charles Judd was once monarch of all he surveyed; now he is dying by inches. His old firm has been taken over by rapacious upstarts; he is plagued by guilty memories of ancient affairs with nubile secretaries; and he is at war with the rabbits advancing across the garden of England. The rabbits are like the Vietcong, Charles thinks, infiltrating and destroying all before them.
His other children are doing what kids do. Young Charlie is making money in Dotcom Country, and Sophie makes television commercials and snorts coke. Both are superb portraits of loving, and lost, children. But in his Lear-like, mad and foolish way, Charles loves only Juliet, whom he believes has betrayed and shamed him. He has cast her out of his life, never even visiting her in jail.
But now Ju-Ju is coming home, and young Charlie has gone to collect her from a snowy jail in upstate New York. There are few novelists who can do the United States so well on the page. Cartwright threads the bright hues of America through the grey-green shades of England, like the play of patterned light in the stained-glass windows that loom so large in this brilliant novel.
Each member of the Judd family is shown to us in a series of deeply intimate illuminations. The Promise of Happiness ends by keeping faith with its title: the finale is a rich and highly improbable settling of accounts, a kind of Shakespearean revel, a brazen manipulation of destinies, which seems both absurd and absolutely right.
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