Book Review: The Waiting by Regi Claire

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Waiting

This review first appeared in The Bottle Imp, published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies (ASLS)

Lizzie Fairbairn, protagonist of Regi Claire’s The Waiting, might just be one of the most surprising septuagenarians you’re likely to encounter in literary fiction. Visited in her Edinburgh home by the vaguely sinister Rachel, granddaughter of her childhood friend Marlene, Lizzie is forced to confront incidents from her history that put her repressed,  seething nature through the wringer. As the story shifts from the 1930s through to the present day, Marlene’s complex influence over Lizzie’s past unfolds as Rachel’s intrusion  into her current life grows increasingly alarming.

An ominous atmosphere settles over Lizzie’s story from the start. As a child her perception of the world around her seems skewed, as if she views nature as inherently cruel  and predatory. Through Lizzie’s eyes, trees reach into the sky and tear it apart, the wind viciously tears leaves from branches ‘by the fistful’ and the sun sears human flesh like a branding iron. Seagulls screech and jeer at her, and a bunch of chrysanthemums are perceived by Lizzie as ‘stiff and uncompromising. Callous.’

Even as an old woman, at a time in life when tempers are assumed to have mellowed, Lizzie’s view of the Edinburgh landscape surrounding her is laced with violence:  ‘On good days I sometimes picture the hill coming furiously alive, tossing its giant head to cast off the human fleas crawling all over it.’ Her neighbour Miss Erskine’s battle with aggressively spreading skin cancer seems only to reinforce this notion that nature is remorselessly uncaring. Lizzie’s spite becomes fused with her malevolent view of the natural world, and she appears to take pleasure in her fantasy of the hill harming the humans who have dared to walk upon it.

An incident in Lizzie’s childhood, when her little dog Liquorice becomes pregnant even though she is far too young to bear a litter, seems to have a profound effect on her.  How could Mother Nature allow such a wicked thing to happen? Lizzie’s mum blames her daughter for allowing the dog to fall pregnant, and Lizzie keenly feels the torment of this  blame: ‘My heart felt stone-heavy with grief and guilt. Ignorance is the root of so much harm. So much evil.’ Lizzie, for her part, blames the unrepentant Marlene for the tragic incident, and attributes it to her friend’s remorseless immorality, leading her to wonder whether ‘the world would be a better place if people were truly without conscience, as  wilful and capricious as Marlene.’ At least that way we would be spared the agony of contrition.

This lack of morality in Marlene raises the much-explored issue of ‘nature versus nurture’, a matter examined in countless texts, from Oliver Twist to Lionel Shriver’s  We Need to Talk about Kevin. Whether a child can simply be born ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or whether we are always a product of our upbringing, is sensitively documented by Claire  throughout the development of Marlene’s character. More than once, Marlene’s mother Mrs Gray asks the question: ‘Why on earth did I go and make her?’, a question which explains a  lot with regards to the woman Marlene becomes. This callous dismissal of her own child, as if Marlene was no more than a hindrance or an error, is compounded by the fact that Marlene is illegitimate, the shameful by-product of a sexual affair Mrs Gray had as a widow. Rumour has it that twice Mrs Gray tried to leave the baby on the doorstep of the child’s father  and twice had the bundle returned to her.

This rejection is repeated years later when primary school teacher Mrs Robson gives Marlene the role of Mary Magdalene in the school nativity play, a calculated act with  significant repercussions. As a bastard child, apparently unfit to play the part of anyone but a ‘fallen woman’, Marlene’s Mary Magdalene is crow-barred into the story, despite  the illogical chronology, and made ‘to stumble about the stage like a drunk, searching and searching, unable to find her way to the stable.’ Lizzie notes that no one, not even Marlene or Mrs Gray, seems to see anything wrong with this, but Lizzie’s ‘heart still bleeds for Marlene’ when she thinks of it, years later.

Lizzie puts a great deal of emphasis on another incident from her and Marlene’s childhood. Marlene has no idea that she is a bastard child, a product of perceived sin,  until Lizzie tells her one day as they sit on a primrose covered riverbank. Lizzie becomes convinced that this is the moment Marlene loses her innocence and childlike faith in people, that it is perhaps she who is to blame for Marlene’s unravelling; that this is why her friend stopped being ‘the trusting child she had once been — before the  primrose bank …’ Was Marlene born ‘bad’, as her mother seems to suggest? Or was this a self-fulfilling belief, the very reason why Marlene turns out as she does? Was the  social stigmatizing to blame, or is it all Lizzie’s fault?

And yet, it is apparent to the reader from the very beginning that it is Marlene who repeatedly leads Lizzie into horrible situations, not the other way round. Whether it is Marlene persuading Lizzie to take a colleague out for lunch so that she might humiliate him by probing him on his past crimes, or getting the pair of them sacked from jobs in a hotel, or leading Lizzie into a museum where she is assaulted, Marlene is shown to continuously lead her friend astray.

This malignant influence appears to lead to a gradual decline in Lizzie’s own sense of morality. When Marlene comes into some money she decides to visit a poor tenement family as an act of charity, taking Lizzie along for the ride. Merely mimicking the act of helping the impoverished family, the pair fails to do anything but  take from them: ‘These people were poor alright. Yet they made us sit down on their least rickety chairs, closest to the fire, spread a fresh tablecloth and offered us  tea and homemade pancakes. And we, who had come empty-handed, ate their pancakes, drank their tea, and left.’ Even when the newly moneyed Marlene humiliates her friend by visiting the dressmaker’s where Lizzie works and abusing her newfound position of superiority, Lizzie still remains her friend.

Indeed, Lizzie seems to keep missing her chance to leave this noxious friendship, which is perplexing and, on occasion, infuriating to read. When Lizzie muses ‘How come  I hadn’t ditched her long ago?’ the average response is surely an exasperated: ‘Yes, how come?!’ Lizzie knows her friend is a user and a thief (‘She just took things, used them,  then lost interest’) and yet she stands by her, forgiving her time and time again, perhaps because of her guilt over the primrose bank incident, or perhaps because, in her heart,  Lizzie believes she is as bad as her friend. Indeed, there is a destructive side to Lizzie, even in her old age, a nastiness that rises to the surface as she surveys the young  folk surrounding her in the city’s Meadows: ‘I feel like pulling the wires out their ears, feel like grabbing hold of their sloppy jeans, chopping off the excess cloth and tossing it to Yoyo for chews.’

Where this unprovoked rage stems from is unclear, but Lizzie’s bitterness suggests she is a thwarted individual, burdened by the experiences of her past. Unlike Marlene,  however, Lizzie chastises herself for her less noble actions. She refers to herself as ‘a selfish beast’ and admonishes herself in a shocking fashion: ‘Bitch, I scourge myself,  bloody bitch. How can you be so heartless?’ It is alarming and yet strangely thrilling to witness an old lady, a figure endlessly caricatured as dotty and benign, acting  in such an unconventional and vivid manner. It is as though Lizzie has been infected by her friend, and Lizzie’s husband certainly seems to believe in the toxic effect that  Marlene can have on others: ‘She’s poison, believe me.’

Lizzie’s husband Alan raises another important issue explored by Claire, namely the social position of women throughout this period. Alan is of a decidedly old-school  mode of thinking, and treats his wife with a dismissiveness bordering on disdain: ‘Even now I can see his hand swat me away like a fly, Into the kitchen, woman, I’m waiting for my  tea, then reach for the Scotsman or the tumbler of whisky on the coffee table.’ Alan takes a biblical stance on how women should be treated and what their role in society  should be: ‘he held forth on how a wife was decreed to be the helpmate and support of her husband — made from his very own rib, after all …’

It is for this reason that he so detests Marlene; she does not conform to his idea of a moral woman, so far is she from his ideal vision of loving wife and mother.  She is unfaithful to her husband, a sexual tease of the first order, a heavy drinker, and a negligent mother. This link between women and morality — the idea that women  should be kind, nurturing and self-sacrificing above all else — is broken by Marlene in a way that is simultaneously deplorable and exhilarating. Her husband and children suffer terribly, which is unforgivable, yet Marlene bursts from the restrictive mould imposed by Alan and his ilk, something which, if not quite deserving of admiration,  is nonetheless deeply satisfying to read.

Regi Claire tackles these weighty topics with sensitivity and nuance, deftly weaving them through a narrative which time-trips between numerous decades without being reductive.  There are moments when the quality of her writing is truly stunning, whether it is the comical image of a group of old women hobbling over a yard and sweeping the ground with their  flap of skirts, or an elderly Lizzie listening to rock music and thinking of WWII, the boom of the drums intermingling with the boom of anti-aircraft fire, ‘The sounds of destruction  visited upon the living.’ Claire’s characterisation is subtle and precise, whether she is describing Marlene’s husband consumed with regret for not following his career as a research  scientist, or Lizzie having never held a grown woman’s hand until she holds Rachel’s, or Marlene, for all her flaws, living life to the absolute heights and depths, raging  in the throes of death.

This is a novel full of the pits and peaks of life, of humour and pathos, of joyful light and nightmarish darkness, and the crisp, clean, razor-sharp style of Claire’s writing  cuts to the heart of a story that will linger in the reader’s imagination for long after the final, dazzling passage ends.

Jacqueline Thompson Creative Writing PhD student The University of Edinburgh J.Thompson-9@sms.ed.ac.uk

The Waiting by Regi Claire is published by Word Power Books, 2012.

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Book Review: Republics of the Mind by James Robertson

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This review first appeared on The Bottle Imp website, published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies (ASLS). It is edited and produced by Gwen Enstam, ASLS’s International Project Developer, and Duncan Jones,  ASLS’s Director.

It’s no easy task to produce twenty-two short stories of startling diversity and successfully unite them by a select handful of themes, but in Republics of the Mind James Robertson does just that. Whether the stories here are set in a decaying Scottish safari park or a graveyard, a South Dakota reservation or an abandoned mental hospital,  Robertson continuously returns to the same group of dilemmas: entrapment and the wish to escape, inertia, nightmarish visions of the present and future, existential crises,  mortality and, throughout it all, fear. Robertson’s gritty, realistic style and evocations of Scottish working-class life have earned him comparisons with the likes of Irvine  Welsh and James Kelman, but is it when he enters into the realms of the nightmarish and surreal that his explorations of certain ideas are at their most vivid and compelling?

Many of the characters here are trapped in some way, united by their inability or unwillingness to free themselves from their fate. In ‘Giraffe’, Jimmy and Dave are sent to  clean up a run-down safari park’s ‘meat-room’, opening the door to find the room heaving with maggots and cockroaches, rank with decomposing flesh and oozing black blood.  There isn’t much else they can do but clean it; they’re poor and need their jobs: ‘That was it really. They were stuck. They didn’t have great prospects in front of them.  They had to take what they were given.’ They are just like the animals in the safari park: trapped and surrounded by decay. Poverty has entrenched them.

Likewise in ‘The Jonah’, Billy tries to make a better life for himself but is burdened with his immoral, womanising friend Sean, as well as by the poverty that  restricts his movements. Hitch-hiking with his irksome friend, the pair briefly splits up, and Billy is given a chance to take a lift and part ways with Sean. A thousand things race through his head as he decides whether to accept the lift or refuse it: ‘This was all in a moment. A moment like all these moments in his life when he felt he was  being tossed like a coin. For a moment the chances hang spinning in the air, and then you call.’ Chance does play a role in our lives, but so does the act of making choices,  and in liberating himself from his friend we hope Billy has finally found some semblance of emancipation.

In the titular story, a couple rail against the new government, disgusted that Scotland is represented by such corrupt and detached politicians. They discover a mental  state which seems to remove them from the strife their country is experiencing: ‘It was a state of being in which all the people understood themselves, and what they were doing, and why they were where they were.’ Is this their mode of dealing with their own sense of powerlessness, a way to find inner peace, purpose and contentment? Or are they just  running away from reality? Is their method of escape not really an escape at all?

In ‘Don’t Start Me Talkin’ (I’ll Tell You Everything I Know)’, a housewife seeks escapism from her mundane life. She is a slave to schedule and wants to experience energy and life, to finally feel something. She visits a record shop and listens to the blues, music ‘unlike anything she’d heard’, and this offers her a momentary escape. The young man in the store who introduces her to this exotic music feels similarly trapped, though by the very opposite of what traps the housewife: there is no one waiting for him back home, and the excess of freedom is oppressive.

‘Willie Masson’s Miracle’ reveals the plight of the elderly, the poor souls who are mentally fit and healthy but whose sound minds are trapped inside bodies that are  failing them. Willie’s arm is paralysed, but as he is being severely patronised by a home help he manages to summon up some unknown force to exact his revenge: ‘…he was amazed  to see his hand flip up and catch the wifie a neat wee skelp with the knuckles right on the end of her nose.’ In this he finds a brief respite from being babied and misunderstood, a brilliant act of defiance.

This sense of entrapment bleeds into the feeling of inertia that plagues so many of the characters here. In ‘Screen Lives’ Shona plucks at her loose skin, ‘…filled with a terrible dread of being old, of not having done all these things.’ She fears wasting her life but can’t seem to summon the courage to do anything about it. Likewise in ‘The Dayshift’, a nameless man runs through the motions of his dull job and repetitive home life, his stultifying routine devoid of diversity or spontaneity. He muses on ‘the ten-minute walk  that he would make to his house where his wife would be in the kitchen. The smell of soup. Always the same smell, always the same soup.’ He is well aware his life is humdrum  and monotonous but doesn’t do a thing about it. Though Dean is only twenty-five in ‘The Future According to Luke’, he feels ‘like he wasn’t fully alive, like somebody had reached in and taken some vital organ out of his body while he was sleeping.’ He wants anything to happen, even something bad, just to lift him out of his ennui.

Fear of time running out intensifies in ‘The Claw’, a story about a young man who visits his grandfather in an old folks’ home. He sees that his grandfather is ‘caught between history and hope, but history weighs heavy in his scales now, and every year it gobbles up hope.’ The young man’s dismay at his grandfather’s failing body — particularly his  arthritic ‘claw’ — is made particularly wrenching when we discover that the young man is HIV-positive, that he is terrified of decaying like his grandfather. The old man’s predicament is a horrible premonition of what his own will be. Similarly, the poor soul sitting on the toilet in ‘Facing It’ looks at the blood in the bowl and feels like  ‘everything has failed him, he knew it was all coming apart in there…’ He does not want to face the road to death — his family’s distress, doctors, hospitals — and instead wants to just walk into the hills and die. These men’s dread of time passing is not just a symbol of their inertia but a terrible fear of a more imminent threat.

If these real life events are nightmarish then they are nothing compared to the surreal events of ‘The Plagues’, ‘Pretending to Sleep’, ‘The Dictionary’, ‘The Rock Cake Incident’, ‘MacTaggart’s Shed’, and ‘Sixes and Sevens’. These six tales mark Robertson out from the usual comparisons with the gritty realistic style of Kelman and the like. True,  Robertson’s stories are filled with the stuff of real life, but his ghoulish flights of fancy are arguably the most memorable tales of this collection.

‘The Plagues’ sees a man’s apartment overrun with a biblical swarm of frogs, seemingly a manifestation of his depression. The ominous last line is like something straight  out of a horror film. In the sci-fi-esque ‘Pretending to Sleep’ people start lying down in the middle of the street for no known reason, and in ‘The Dictionary’ letters spill  out in all directions from the titular tome, a staunchly reliable thing made unreliable and perplexing. ‘The Rock Cake Incident’ has a Hitchcockian atmosphere (including an  intensely creepy dentist), and portrays normal things as unsettling and frightening, ultimately unknowable.

The most disquieting story is surely ‘MacTaggart’s Shed’, set in a future dystopian version of Scotland where ethnic cleansing occurs. Whether the events of people being  herded into a shed to be executed are real or imagined is uncertain. The man who witnesses these events, Chrissie, is certainly told that he’s dreamed it up: ‘Ye’ve been watchin  too much shite on the telly. Aw these news programmes ye watch, the documentaries and aw that. That aw happens somewhere else. Other countries. No here. Ye’re away wi the fairies.’

In ‘Sixes and Sevens’ we find an equally unsettling read, during which the reader doesn’t know quite what to think. This too has a Hitchcockian feel, set in an abandoned  mental hospital and focussing on a man who may be a visitor and may be a patient. The man’s grandfather lived here during the war, blighted by shellshock, and it is deliberately  unclear if he is visited by his spirit or if he is time-tripping, or if perhaps he himself is a ghost. At one point the man turns to see that the armchairs have ‘all crept a little  closer to the fireplace’, an event which would seem well at home in a ghost story.

Republics of the Mind is an altogether fascinating and unsettling read, expertly crafted to lead the reader direct into the psyches of a host of characters placed in situations ranging from the familiar to the preternatural. The dialogue is spot-on (Robertson has a particular knack for transcribing Scottish dialects) and each story  is shot through with a tangible sense of time and place, even when the action strays into the eerie and unknown. It’s an eclectic collection of tales, given a strong sense  of structure by Robertson’s encompassing themes, and is sure to provoke as much thought as it deserves admiration.

Jacqueline Thompson Creative Writing PhD student The University of Edinburgh J.Thompson-9@sms.ed.ac.uk

Republics of the Mind by James Robertson is published by Black and White, 2012.