Michael Joseph, £18.99, 437pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year, By Sue Townsend

 

"They lapsed into sullen silence, each knowing that, if certain words were said, it would be like leaving the comparative safety of a muddy trench at Ypres and going over the top to the carnage of the battle field." You can see the dazzling brilliance of that sentence, whatever emotional viewpoint you are squinting from.

The sullen couple consists of two adulterous astronomers, Titania and Brian, who spend their nights in a furnished shed in the erring husband's garden. They gaze at the stars, when "the seeing" is good, and drag each other down the rest of the time. Meanwhile Brian's wife, Eva Beaver, lies in her white bed, in a bare white room, slowly withdrawing from life.

Eva has come to a dead end. She just can no longer tolerate the thought of emptying and filling the washing machine, picking up things from downstairs to take them upstairs, picking things up from upstairs to take them downstairs, wiping down surfaces, reaming out lavatories, chopping, shopping or any other domestic task. I have a book of photographs of Victorian lunatic asylum inmates, and many an Eva Beaver stares out from its forlorn pages.

Sleeping with Boring Brian is just another of the tasks that Eva's abandoned. Like Herman Melville's Bartleby The Scrivener, she gives no reason for her withdrawal; like Bartleby, Eva would just prefer not to do anything but stare at the walls or the window. Her family persuade, cajole and bully her. Passing window cleaners, taxi drivers and neighbours drop in, and a growing crowd, who think the white-clad, white-faced Eva is an earthbound angel, keep vigil outside her house

Despite the almost action-less heroine, this is not a calm book. Sue Townsend fills the pages with turmoil, anger, passion, love and big helpings of Townsend wit. Eva's twins, Brian Junior and Brianne, who are mathematics geniuses, leave home and turn from docile teenagers into a major threat to global stability. Eva's house fills with scarred fighter-pilot heroes, mad old women, the beaten, the broken-hearted and a couple of re-placement children.

Meanwhile Alexander, a black Old Carthusian who was once a high-rolling banker but is now an odd-job man, falls deeply in love with the inert Eva. All these characters make their eccentric orbits round the fixed point in her white bed, in her white room.

This is a book that's harsh on those with a mathematical or astronomical turn of mind. There's a self-fulfilling myth, among the arty classes, that they are somehow more sensitive and creative than the scientifically-minded; odd to find Townsend falling into this cliché. Pondering cosmic or mathematical infinity requires boldness and imagination, yet Brian, Brian Junior and Brianne are portrayed as narrow-brained cold-blooded nerds

They strike the only duff notes in a perceptive novel, written by an author whose sight has ebbed away. It's full of colour and complexity, is a bit bonkers, and glows with life.

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