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Difference and Pretence,
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This review is from: My Policeman (Hardcover)
In Bethan Roberts's latest novel, 'my' is the most important word. Possessive, nigh-obsessive, her narrative constantly questions the notion of having anyone. Told through Marion's marriage to Tom, Roberts's story deftly unfolds the contradictions and hypocrisies of pre-Wolfenden Britain. But what starts out as a bitter memoir becomes a truly insightful tale.
Marion tends to Patrick, the aged victim of three strokes and the former lover of her husband. At first, however, Marion seems to use his incapacity in order that she can tell him how he ruined her married life. Roberts keeps a condescending eye on Marion's world: 1950s Britain is described through Technicolor glare, piling on bathetic references to rayon, Vimto and the like. But underneath this bracing and often larky exterior, more intemperate passions brew.
Shifting the narrative to Patrick, we learn how a mundane but beautiful policeman called Tom came into his life. The only problem is that he's already part of Marion's world. The tug-of-war between propriety and passion, feigned heterosexuality and closeted homosexuality is painful but powerful to read. If Roberts seemed to patronise through Marion's narrative, the resulting conflict is told in anything but snooty terms. Never letting up on her emotional focus lapse for one second, My Policeman becomes an increasingly upsetting narrative.
What makes this story - loosely based on E.M. Forster's life with policeman Bob Buckingham and his wife - so much more than the novel of a marriage, however, is Roberts constant wrestle with surface and interior, constantly shifting between a projected and a real self.
Marion provides an apt lens through which to watch the tale, as neither she nor us is fully aware of the hurt that lies ahead. And, in the final passages of the book, it proves impossible not to be shaken at what once was a way of life and, sadly, a sure-fire path to destruction. As Forster himself wrote, 'it is only that people are far more different than is pretended.' Hopefully the need for pretence is now over, but this novel remains an extraordinary warning from the past.