You Don't Have to be Good, By Sabrina Broadbent

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In literature as well as life, middle-aged women rarely just vanish – though as one character in Sabrina Broadbent's comic novel notes, that's because they disappear by degrees.

A Cambridge council employee, Bea Kemp has plenty to be cross about. She's fast approaching 50, her husband Frank, an aspiring playwright, spends his afternoons photographing the Polish cleaning lady's "astounding" bottom, her sister is a cow, and the love of her life, Patrick Cumberbatch, has moved to Greece. On the plus side she has been a good aunt to her teenage nephew and niece, enjoys the company of work-mates and quite likes her well-lived-in house. All in all, it's not enough, and one Wednesday morning she simply fails to turn up for work.

As in her debut novel Descent, a roman à clef about the end of her own marriage, Broadbent captures the small-scale miseries of imperfect lives and relationships with an empathetic humour that makes the commonplace interesting. When it becomes obvious that Bea's disappearance is more than just an impromptu walkabout, Frank is visited by the Bureau of Missing Persons and the police. Put on the spot, he finds it impossible to lay his hands on a recent snapshot of his wife (despite an otherwise extensive digital portfolio) and, when pressed, can't recall her job title or even the colour of her eyes.

In the end, Broadbent's novel turns out to be less about Bea's mid-life crisis than the ripple effect her disappearance has on those around her. Although she is generally regarded as a softhearted incompetent, it soon becomes clear that she's in fact the linchpin holding together a complex matrix of familial relationships.

Contrary to expectations, the person most stunned by Bea's departure is her sister, Katharine, a high-powered paediatrician who, until this point, has largely been viewed by her sibling as a convenient babysitter. It's Katharine's son, Adrian, who takes his aunt's disappearance most to heart.

Broadbent's writing is spry and funny, and her unconventional characters - childless women, un-motherly mothers - spring from the real world. Novels about mid-life female flight have been done before, most memorably by Anne Tyler, in her 1995 novel Ladder of Years, but here the fantasy is given a very English makeover. The only disappointment of the book is that we don't get to know the character of Bea a little better. In the end, it's hard not to feel cheated when we're not allowed to join her on her final walk over Midsummer Common towards the train station and a new unencumbered dawn. What we really want to know is what happens next.