Thursday, August 23, 2007

A family adrift (Books: The Promise of Happiness - Justin Cartwright)


I'm about a third of the way through Justin Cartwright's The Promise of Happiness and so far this novel is delivering successfully on its title. This is just the kind of contemporary domestic novel that I enjoy. Daphne and Charles Judd - a couple retired from London now living in Cornwall - and two of their children await the release of the third child and sibling, Juliet, from prison. She was the one, it seemed, most destined for success - a Masters degree from the prestigious Courtald, a job in a New York art gallery. The Judd's are one of those families that was supposed to have gotten it right in a steady, middle class way - secure, stable employment for the parents, good university education for the children, reasonable good health - they were fulfilling the promise and so should get the reward. But then Dad's company is taken over and rather than settle for early retirement he fights and loses, and the chosen daughter goes to jail for a crime she actually did commit (this happens before the story starts) and suddenly the promises that were secured, like little boats to a jetty, become unmoored, each drifting separately out into the water.

Cartwright gets it right inside as well as out - what its like inside his characters' heads- particularly Charles - is observed in great depth and detail, and in graceful language that isn't too decorative. There is a wonderful early scene - an argument between husband and wife when first she ruins a recipe from a cookbook and then he goes for fish and chip take away and fails to bring back two pieces:
"I definitely ordered two. Definitely. Six pounds and eighty pence."

He reaches into his pocket to inspect the change, but he can't find it.

"You have it. I"ll have a sandwich," she says.

"No, you have it. I'm not hungry, I ate a lot of nuts. I'll just have the chips."

"We'll divide it and I will get a few tomatoes."

"You have it."

"Look, I'll just cut it in half like this. It's a big one."

"I don't fucking well want it."

He gets up from the table and catches high thigh and hobbles towards the living room, which in daylight has a view all the way down to the bay, and he turns on the television. She sits looking at the fish. She's divided it quite neatly. The batter is strangely crisp and bubbly and there is a large gap between it and the fish. The flesh is grey, with an indigo stain where the skin has been removed. Now she can't eat, as though all fish, even this unreformed, solid cod, are reproaching her. She begins to cry. She knows that Charles will appear soon and she tries to stop herself.

"I'm sorry, darling," he says from the doorway. "I'm a silly old cunt. Let's just picnic on what we've got. All right? I'm a little tight too. The dome chappie insisted on buying me a large Jack Daniels, which is from Tennessee."

He sits down; the fish is fine, and with the chips and a few small, cold, hard tomatoes, more than enough. But they have both failed in their own fashion, in the fish department.

He captures the details in things, like the fish batter and hard tomatoes, that, when people fail to connect with each other, suddenly become surrounded by utter emptiness. He also weaves together a most convincing family dynamic - switching between each of the family members - and yet not seeming to assume one perspective more fairly than another. While in prison, Juliet reflects on the relationship between her father, Charles, and brother, Charlie:
She saw now what her father had been getting at. She saws that he had feared the decay of beauty, the loss of innocence and the death of hope. He was saying you are born innocent and the whole fucking thing begins to go wrong immediately. Children are born not into desert - she had read - but into a living world. But Dad feared the living world. He was very sensitive to its injuries.

For instance, when Charlie's hair, still thick, began to thin at a young age, Dad suffered. His own hair, still thick, reproached him, so he had it cut short to remove any impression that he gloried in its flourishes. Only she knows why he cut his hair one day.

There are ways in which unusual circumstances seem to detach people from all sense of former security - everything is questioned - Cartwright captures that type of crisis beautifully. The narrator's voice is flowing and assured - contemporary, with a wit than shines through from time to time that reminds you that "this is the narrator's voice." Only the novel's time shifts feel a bit clunky to me, otherwise it is graceful and observant - satisfying reading.

1 comment:

Matt said...

I've read some good things about this book and considered adding it to my list. Actually I may have already added it, but if I haven't I'll have to think about doing so again.