When pond salesman Selwyn comes home one afternoon towing his firm’s exhibition caravan and tells his ‘like-wife’ Ginny to get into the car, all she can drag out of him by way of explanation is that he’s taking her on a little holiday to Wales. In fact, this late middle-aged couple, once childhood neighbours and sweethearts, are setting off on a B-road trip like no other. They both hope the trip will close the emotional distance between them. Perhaps it will, but in a neat metaphor, they struggle initially to get very far from Stoke-on-Trent.
Their many stops and diversions are part of Selwyn’s hidden agenda. As the trip unfolds, the couple, who have lived together for nearly a year in an unconsummated relationship, encounter sundry characters from Selwyn’s past, all of whom are overjoyed to see him and in whose company the often-infuriated Ginny feels excluded. While Selwyn confronts his own history in a physical sense, Ginny has the chance to confront hers via memory.
In a fragmented narrative peppered with colourful flashbacks, the question is always there: is their relationship the true love Selwyn takes it to be or is it a fantasy that can’t stand up to the pressures of people with two very different pasts coming together to create a shared present?
So far, so intriguing. The start of Lisa Blower’s third work of fiction is well handled. A tale of the extraordinary within the ordinary is clearly signposted by the premise of an unexpected journey in an unlikely caravan, by Ginny saying of Selwyn that ‘the world had pushed him to one side, as it had with me’ and by the sparkling, dancing quality of Blower’s writing. ‘I once read that you can kill a man with a single blow to the temple with a frozen sausage,’ says Ginny, in an early laugh-out-loud moment. Later, she describes a cat as having ‘large amber eyes like burning cigarette tips.’
Blower’s sketches of minor characters are delicious. She writes with a Dickensian eye for the telling dark detail. Of next door neighbour Val, Ginny says: ‘She chuffs gamely on a Consulate… she has her arms folded, a polo neck of maroon velour and looks at me as if measuring me up for a coffin. There are moccasins on her feet. Bunions, I expect. Splayed toes.’ We are thrilled by Ginny’s cattiness, suspicious as she is of all the women Selwyn seems to know with a familiarity she can’t fathom or explain.
The strangeness of these larger-than-life characters is often extended to their settings too, and scenes take on a dark magical quality. My favourite scene in the novel takes place mid-way, on The Sixth Day and the Sixth Night (all the chapters are titled like this, recalling the Book of Genesis) where in the pitch dark in the middle of nowhere, the couple visit Corbet Hall. Selwyn is effusively welcomed by a very elderly couple and to Ginny’s horror disappears with the man, Hugh, for the entire night, leaving her alone with the uncommunicative, brown-draped Maisie, ‘an old, old woman, peeping around the corner of the next life.’ They go into a kitchen of exposed brick lit by ‘a washing line of dangling bare bulbs of all different watts’ where it is ‘cold, really bloody cold.’
Creepy details abound, and when Maisie takes Ginny into a room that contains a massive fish tank housing six hundred and fourteen fish, the strangeness only deepens.
These set pieces are brilliantly done. My problem is with the in-between scenes, where Selwyn and Ginny drive from place to place and where their arguing takes on a soap-opera feel. Their conflict is peppered by redeeming moments of longing and tenderness but the scenes have a repetitive quality. There is too much storming off and too much ‘get back in the car!’ The high emotional tone here and the ease with which the anger flares seems monochrome and I would have welcomed subtler ways of highlighting their tensions and misunderstandings.
But in fairness, Blower didn’t set out to write a novel of understatement, and her taste for drama, when present in her scene descriptions and characters, works brilliantly. Talking of which, back at Corbet Hall, Selwyn’s explanation about Hugh and Maisie comes the next day and at last we learn something important about his life and motivations. Things from now on make more sense. It was here that I began to care about the characters. Towards the end of the book, I surprised myself by crying my eyes out.
In the end, the novel worked for this reader. If it had worked more completely, I would have liked it even more.