This review is from: Worst Fears (Paperback)
Fay Weldon's novel Worst Fears starts and finishes with bereavement. It examines how a woman deals with simultaneous loss and revealed betrayal. Alexandra is an actress, if I might be excused such gender specificity. She is also quite successful. She is currently appearing in a London West End production of Ibsen's A Doll's House. She is therefore away from home a lot.
Her husband Ned has just died, apparently discovered on the floor of the family home by a visitor. It was a sudden and massive heart attack. Alexandra wonders what might have brought it on. She takes time off work, thus allowing an understudy temporarily to take her role. She returns to the rickety, old, antique-stuffed cottage in the country. It is perhaps a rural idyll that now has to be rewritten.
Her worst fears are that there is more than meets the eye. She also has some hopes, but from the start it seems unlikely they will be realised. She is greeted by the dog, Diamond, who seems to know something is wrong. She contacts local acquaintances, Lucy and Abbie, whom she suspects know more than they are saying. Hamish, her husband's brother, comes to stay to help sort things out. Sascha, Alexandra and Ned's little boy is with Irene, Alexandra's mother. It happens often when Alexandra is away at work. Her husband Ned, as usual needed space at home to concentrate. He was, by the way, was an authority on theatre, a critic, an expert on Ibsen and also interested in costume design.
As Alexandra delves into recent events, she discovers a tangle of interests, relationships and liaisons. All of them have implications for her, despite the fact that she was often not directly involved. The protagonists relate directly to one another. They socialise, if that might be the right word. They interact. They act. They play-act. Alexandra's worst fears begin to materialise.
Ned's surname is Ludd. It is surely not a coincidence that he shares a name with one of the wreckers of history. He is the only developed male character in the novel, despite his being dead. He never speaks, but his presence pervades, perhaps even controls everything that the still living can do. The truths of his life have been at best partial, his interests specifically personal. It seems that the women are positioning themselves to lay claim to ownership of his memory. And thus recollection, rumour and revelation unfold their tangle.
The above may suggest a rather one-dimensional approach towards a feminist moral, but it is much more subtle than that. This thread is there, of course, and is epitomised when Alexandra's part in A Doll's House - itself a play about women and emancipation - is exploited to success by her understudy via sexual stereotyping. And Worst Fears opens with two of the women involved viewing Ned's body, their attention drawn to a part of his anatomy that is to become one of the book's main actors. Their reverence is sincere as they genuflect before their flaccid altar.
This accepted, it seems also that the book deals more fundamentally with the more universal issues of self-interest and selfishness. All of these characters, despite their often social or private relations, are in conflict. They compete with one another and even with themselves. When liberation becomes a possibility, it is revealed as no more than an opportunity for even greater self-obsession, a means of shutting out the interest of others.
As the plot of Worst Fears unfolds, the impression it leaves is that these accomplished, middle-class, apparently comfortable people are all still engaged in a primeval struggle for raw animal dominance. The currency that is hoarded in the process remains the same as it would have been if the characters had never evolved from quadruped apes in a forest gang. There is no liberation here, for anyone, except, that is, via their words, the very weapons they use to prod, punch, pierce the reality that effectively confines them to themselves. These could be anyone's worst fears.