Saturday, August 20, 2011

the last book I read

Laura Blundy by Julie Myerson.

Laura Blundy has just killed her husband. Messily. Stove his head in with a large bronze ornament, and then mashed his face in with a poker when he turned out to be still alive and twitching.

Obviously one doesn't do these things for no reason, and Laura's reasons are fairly simple: she's in love with Billy, a young man fifteen years her juinor. Actually it's not that simple, as Billy is already married to someone else, and has four children. He's been working as a labourer on various major projects in central London including the Embankment and Joseph Bazalgette's revolutionary sewer system. Which is a living, to be fair, but it doesn't compare with Laura's husband Ewan's income; Ewan is (or was) a surgeon, and met Laura under the slightly odd circumstances of having to preside over the amputation of her leg after she'd been run over by a hansom cab.

Laura's history is murky and mysterious - it transpires that the cab/leg incident followed fairly closely after her release from prison after a period of incarceration for some unspecified crime, and that she had a baby boy back when she was fifteen, which subsequently died. It seems also that despite being born and brought up in reasonably comfortable circumstances she ended up sleeping rough on the banks of the Thames, so that and the subsequent spell in prison presumably made her more receptive to Ewan's offer of marriage, especially given the prospect of having to return to her former life on one leg. Reduced circumstances, you might say.

So, anyway, there's Ewan, all smashed and mangled, and Laura has to work out a way of getting rid of him. Naturally she ropes Billy in to help, and they dismember Ewan and lug him down to the Thames in some sacks. Having weighted these down and lobbed them in the river, they consider their future, and conclude that there's really no option but to do a runner down to Folkestone and make a new life over in France.

This is where it all starts to get a bit weird. What are we to make of the fact that there is a grave with Laura's name on it? Or that Billy's history seems to be closely intertwined with Laura's dead son's? Or maybe he isn't really dead at all? Come to that, by the end of the book Ewan doesn't seem to be really dead at all either. What's going on?

I'm not sure I can be of much help here, other that to say we may be in similar territory to that occupied by Cloudstreet and William Golding's Pincher Martin, i.e. last thoughts of someone about to die - oddly, by drowning in all three cases, Laura having made reference several times to a previous attempt to drown herself in the Thames, which we're invited to conclude may have been successful after all. So does that mean Billy (the adult version, anyway) is a figment of her imagination? Or is he real, but being haunted? Search me. The gradual realisation that we may be reading a story narrated (and possibly made up) by a dead narrator is similar to that experienced by the reader of Winterwood, though without the same degree of frustration and bafflement. We're not really given enough information to be able to draw any solid conclusions; presumably the point is to illustrate the primeval pull of the mother/child bond, even (possibly) beyond the grave.

As usual Myerson is exceptionally good at conveying the messy practicalities of sex, childbirth and all that sort of stuff (as previously mentioned here); the same goes for the extended and somewhat gruesome descriptions of the leg amputation and the dismembering of Ewan's corpse. The general grinding tedium and horror of a life on the streets in Victorian Britain, not to mention the all-pervading filth and grime and the ever-present probability of dying a horribly protracted and painful death of some (these days) trivial ailment are all vividly rendered as well. Because I am a tedious literalist who likes loose ends tied up, not to mention an amoral soulless godless killing machine, I would have liked a bit more of a definite indication of what was going on at the end, rather than effectively being told to work it out or make it up for myself, as that seems to me like a bit of a dereliction of authorial duty. That gripe aside this is very good, though not exactly a barrel of laughs. I recommend the other two Myersons I've read - 1994's Sleepwalking and 2003's Something Might Happen - as well. Mentioning Winterwood above reminds me of the other book that this brought to mind - Richard Adams' powerfully strange 1980 novel The Girl In A Swing. Completely different setting, but similar in that it involves a woman with dark secrets in her past marrying an otherwise blameless man to escape from them, with some blurring of the line between what's supernatural and what isn't.

List-y trivia now: if I'm right this is the first book in this series to have a title that is just someone's full name. There have of course been previous entries that were just a single given name or surname (Justine, Mr. Phillips, Utz, Balthazar, Lolita, Walter, Kleinzeit, Chatterton, Demian, Mountolive), and a few that featured a full name in the title with some other words (The Truth About Lorin Jones, One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry).

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