Who’d have thought it – and all so soon?
Maggie King says:
What makes this book different? Probably not the subject matter: a supposedly united family riven by petty jealousies and festering feuds, hypocrisy, and scandals of the past. What struck me first was the style. You can hardly miss it. Mother Naked is told in dialogue and set out in what at first sight looks like a play script: each speaker’s name followed by their words. Occasional stage directions. A line or two from the playwright. And yet. And yet. I can’t imagine performing this on stage – on the radio perhaps, but not on stage. Although the characters interact and talk to each other they talk mainly straight to you. They speak in short dramatic monologues, none longer than half a dozen pages, some no more than half a page. When they talk it is with surprising openness; they hold nothing back. They may not to each other but they speak honestly to you. (As honestly as they can, that is, for who knows the truth about themselves? Not these people; we have to read between the lines.)
At first sight the plot is simple: a family gathers at a remote rural hotel to celebrate the matriarch’s 100th birthday. While waiting for her to arrive they drink, eat canapés, drink some more . . . She doesn’t arrive. They drink some more. By the time she does arrive we have learnt that, despite their coming together supposedly in her honour, Ruth is held in low regard. She had a scandalous past. Even before any of the waiting guests were born, Ruth’s behaviour was deplored. She was a striptease dancer. She had too many boyfriends. She was an unfaithful wife and, it is said – but then, everything here is what is said – she drove her first husband to suicide. (We are beginning to doubt these witnesses, you see.) In her day these sins were heinous – but now? And what of her descendants? Were their lives beyond reproach?
Far from it. (You’re not surprised.) But the book does not confine itself to what happened in the past. A plot needs action and there is action a-plenty here. Drink plays its part, old enemies confront, jealousy seethes. All of which prepares the stage for a final act of revelation and surprise. Tables will be turned.
If I have made this sound like a misery memoir I apologize, for I laughed often. Most pages bring a smile – though there are scenes that will make you shudder. Oh, and there’s a shock ending that will make you cheer.
James Havers adds:
Few other than TLS readers will spot an obvious inspiration for Russell James’s neoteric and uplifting story, the dialogue novels of Thomas Love Peacock. James’s novel, like Peacock’s, is written entirely in dialogue. He has entitled it Mother Naked but to repay his debt to Peacock properly he ought perhaps to have called it Heartbreak Hotel.
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