I'm still wondering whether the title of Will Eaves's third novel (taken from the remark of one of the characters during a rare holiday to France early in the novel) is a black-comic joke. For most of the novel, the much-quoted line from Sartre's Huit Clos, 'Hell is Other People', would be more appropriate!
Eaves's post-modern family saga explores the life of the Allden family from the 1960s to the present day. Don and Emily Allden are a reasonably unhappily-married middle-class couple, living in suburban Bath (ie not the gorgeous Georgian centre). Don is a picture-framer and nearly full-time philanderer, Emily is one of the last of the generation of women who didn't work; instead, she cares for their four children and demonstrates a great talent for arts and crafts, which she makes disappointingly little of. Their four children are all as different as can be. The eldest, Clive, is autistic and difficult, though oddly brilliant in certain areas, and his parents seem singularly useless at getting him help - not surprisingly Something Terrible happens after he goes to university (what we do not know) and his career begins a downhill slide. The next in line, Liz, is bright, lively and practical - she inherits her mother's artistic talent, has a cheerful relationship with the opposite sex, and is probably the sanest member of the family. The third child, Lotte (Charlotte - I'm not sure why Eaves spells the abbreviation of her name the German way, other than Don's love of Germany) is ultra-good, well-behaved and rather colourless. She eventually marries for money and ascends to upper middle-class bliss, with ultra-talented children with names such as Jasmin, and no need to work. The youngest child, Benjamin, is sensitive, gay and music-loving, and spends a lot of his time listening to Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin and agonizing about his love life.
Eaves tells the story for the first part as a series of snapshots into family life - a chapter dealing with a holiday in the South of France when the children are small, another dealing with Clive's difficult behaviour as a teenager, a section dealing with Liz's departure for university, and a longish chapter devoted to Benjamin's adolescent interests. The second, extremely miserable part of the novel focuses on the last months of Emily, dying of dementia and Parkinson's disease, and what her illness has done to the family.
Although there were passages of great beauty all the way through the novel - a description of Benjamin watching his father work at picture-framing, a camping trip that Benjamin and Don take to Wales, Liz's realization that she loves her mother very much, and the description of the sampler she makes her, some of the children's memories of Emily which they share as she is dying - I found this on the whole a thoroughly depressing and frustrating read. The family appeared to be wildly dysfunctional and unhappy. Emily, around who a great deal of the novel focused, was a particularly depressing character, almost in love with her own misery. Nobody seemed (apart from Don, who ended up with an attractive partner, and who loved his work, and possibly Lotte) to get what they wanted out of life, and most of the relationships in the book ended in tears. Eaves's 'snapshot' technique in the first part meant that we never got to know much about any of the family - Liz seemed to leap immediately from first-year university to being a single mother and teacher, we never found out what happened to Clive at York, we never got to know where Benjamin went to university or what he did as a job, and it took some time to even piece together simple facts about the Alldens due to the fact Eaves told us so little about them. Benjamin was for the most part a profoundly gloomy narrator - a lost boy who never seemed to quite grow up, and who seemed to spend most of his time anguishing about his childhood or his failed affair (why did it end?) with his boyfriend Jason. Apart from the odd bit of interest in Liz, Eaves spent little time making her or Lotte come to life as characters; consequently the balance between bits of the story told from their perspective and that told from the perspective of damaged Clive or melancholy Benjamin felt skewed. The concentration on misery in the book was quite great - even the family cat only made an appearance for us to be told she was dying. This was particularly the case in the second part of the book, when Emily's death appeared to go on for aeons, with nothing happening either than the family endlessly thrashing out past tensions and accusing each other of past bad behaviour. And I couldn't work out whether the flashback at the end was an attempt to put in a genuine happy ending or whether Eaves was being ironic (this marriage that began so well ended in tears!).
Eaves is certainly a gifted writer, but I found this book profoundly depressing and ultimately found it hard to engage with his characters. Not a great read.