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Redescribing What Everybody Already Knows,
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This review is from: The Master Bedroom (Paperback)
One of the characters in this novel divides her English graduates into `Tolstoy' and `Dostoyevsky' types. It is reasonably clear that the first type is to be preferred to the second - provocatively dismissed as `two-a-penny' - a sardonic comment on the relationship between literature and life not untypical of this author. But in terms of atmosphere, theme and tone, it is neither Tolstoy nor Dostoyevsky whose influence pervades this sad and subtle evocation of provincial life: it is the influence of Anton Chekhov, a writer less interested in type, perhaps, than in situation.
Kate Flynn, a clever and articulate university lecturer, having made a mess of life in London, returns to her home city and makes a mess of life there. On the car journey down, she is involved in an unusual accident, which throws her into deliberately unaffirmed contact with Suzie, the second wife of David Roberts, younger brother of one of Kate's old friends. The accident, though quite within the parameters of the normal, is endowed by Suzie with uncanny significance and acts as the catalyst for a period instability in her marriage to David. Whilst Suzie experiments with the alternatives, the dutiful but now isolated David finds himself intellectually, if not physically, attracted to Kate, who does not permit him to perceive that she has herself become obsessed with him. Meanwhile David's adolescent son by his first wife, initially intrigued by the arrival of a woman who knew his mother before the latter committed suicide, soon develops an obsession of his own. A series of events that seem sometimes determined, sometimes fortuitous; sometimes deliberate, and sometimes utterly unconsidered twist the relationships of these four characters in more or less predictable directions. A second, apparently illusory, car `accident', just after the climax in the narrative, seems to to reverse the polarities created by the first, and there follows the dissipation of the tensions built up, the revocation of the possibilities explored, and the dissolution of the small circle in which they have occurred. What could be more like Chekhov, except the curiously English - or should I say, Welsh - middle-class context in which it all occurs? The provincial setting; the ambiguous influences of the past; the inconsequential immediacy of the present; and the apparent emptiness of an unforeseeable future - the very title and significance of the 'Master Bedroom' as an ambiguous, and certainly ironic, symbol of uncertain origins, uneasy assertion, paradoxical continuity and overdue change - all these elements will strike chords in the hearts of those susceptible to the lyrical melancholy of Anton Chekhov.
I have to admit, nevertheless, that my first reading of this book was accompanied, for several tens of pages, with feelings of impatience and disgust. This seemed a simple story of small-town sexual transgression between somewhat uninteresting, and even unpleasant, persons. I was distracted and irritated, too, by an affectation of punctuation which dispenses with inverted commas to indicate the opening and closure of direct speech and employs instead the indented hyphen more characteristic of a film script. But I got over it. There is a a great deal to this book, but it is expressed with deceptive simplicity, and much of it is easy to miss. The reader is given privileged access to the thoughts and emotions of two intelligent and reflective persons who naturally engage the sympathies, and who at first seem central to the action: it is only afterwards that the reader appreciates that the secondary characters, to whom there is no direct access, are just as interesting and deserving of sympathy, and may even be said to `make the weather'.
The book is remarkably good at demonstrating how interesting ordinary people can be, and how what we make of them, in literature as in life, usually depends on our own prejudices, unpredictably modified by what we what we are told; what we imagine; and what we actually discover about them for ourselves: sometimes it is hard to see why we should be so in sympathy with them at one moment, and so out of sympathy at the next. Strange too, but completely convincing, is the repeated demonstration of how characters who plume themselves on their rationalism can so easily dipense with it: a decisive choice can be motivated by a dream, a memory, a mood, or a more or less unguarded impulse. Judgment is suspended in the case of irrational behaviour simply because it 'feels' right at the time. Meanwhile, apparently irrational people are shown to act with a surprising degree of pragmatism and common sense. Human beings, it would seem, cannot bear very much reality unless, of course, they are still young and have yet to learn what reality is.