Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting – Penelope Mortimer

I love Penelope Mortimer. I’ve read two of her books now – The Pumpkin Eater (a novel) and Saturday Lunch with the Brownings (a short story collection) – both terrific (the latter found a place on My Best Books of 2021 list). And I’m happy to say that Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, my second for #ReadIndies and published by Persephone Books, is as good as the other two.

Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is a brilliant, superbly crafted tale of a challenging marriage, abortion, and the difficulties of a mother-daughter relationship told in Mortimer’s customary haunting, absorbing style.

We are introduced to Ruth Whiting, a bored housewife who lives with her well-to-do dentist husband Rex in the posh neighbourhood called the Common.

Ruth and Rex have a trying marriage, a union that has been the product of problematic circumstances rather than compatibility or love. Rex is a bully and a bore continuously torturing Ruth with questions and opinions that completely sap her energy. Ruth dotes on her children – her eldest daughter Angela and the boys, Julian and Mike. But they are growing up and have reached that age where they have lives of their own – the boys away at boarding school and Angela, an undergraduate at Oxford. In the holidays, when her children come down, Ruth’s home is filled with chatter, activities and noise, but for the better part of the year, the hours lie empty and the monotonous days stretch endlessly before Ruth.

As Ruth reflects on her reasons for marrying Rex, we are offered a glimpse into her past. On discovering that she is pregnant with Rex’s child (Angela), Ruth’s parents insist that marrying Rex is the only solution, there is no way out, and times being as they were then, Ruth and Rex have no choice but to agree.

The barren days with nothing important to occupy her, the joylessness of being married to Rex and the pressure of keeping up appearances in the well-heeled community they belong to begins to take its toll on Ruth to the point where she suffers a nervous breakdown.

The first stage of the nightmare is losing the ability to believe in insignificance. Consciousness is sharpened to a point in which nothing is trivial but every moment, every detail, has the same unbearable quality of dread. In this condition of despair there are no crises. The merciful censor of memory has broken down and everything is recalled with equal horror, the broken nail becomes a jagged pointer to the senselessness of living, the most commonplace remark, without warning, the grief or terror of a lifetime…the moral judgement delivered on this state of unhappiness is as severe as that pronounced on the lunatics of Bedlam. Lost, it says with smug disgust, all sense of proportion. Which is exactly true.

Rex hires a caregiver to look after her at home and as part of her recovery process Ruth is pushed towards holidaying alone in Antibes, but then a development takes place compelling Ruth to immediately (and with relief) cancel her plans much to Rex’s chagrin.

That development is this – Angela, who was seeing her batchmate Tony, always riding with him on his Vespa, is pregnant. Not knowing what to do, she confides in Ruth expecting the latter to help her. The gamut of conflicting emotions felt by mother and daughter and how they deal with this tough situation forms the backbone of this novel.

As I mentioned earlier, Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is a book about marriage, abortion, the difference in attitudes between generations and a portrayal of a community bound by strict moral codes where outward appearances matter but there is always tension simmering under the surface.

Ruth is a fascinating, complex character. We first get the impression that she’s a passive housewife, a pushover burdened by Rex’s domineering personality, and yet she fights back in her own way. At a particularly crucial time, Ruth rises up to the challenge of helping Angela with her predicament (the idea of abortion horrifies their GP, so they must discreetly arrange for a doctor and money without Rex ever finding out) even though she’s torn by the fact that this baby will never exist. As a mother she is glad to have supported her daughter in her hour of need, even though Angela’s wish fills Ruth with some modicum of sadness.

Ruth also supports Angela’s decision of not marrying Tony. In many ways, Tony is a replica of Rex and in her heart Ruth is relieved that Angela is not going down a part that she (Ruth herself) has come to regret. But the notion of terminating the pregnancy also troubles her. However, what else could they do? We are talking of a time when single parenting was unheard of; a child born out of wedlock was considered a disaster and a blemish on a woman’s image. If marriage was not an option, abortion was the only way out even if illegal.

Angela, for her part, is very clear about terminating the pregnancy although she laments at the unfairness of the situation. The dilemma she is confronted with brings out both the adult and the child in her; adult because she has her own mind and knows what she wants, child because she feels overwhelmed by it all. Tony is like Rex, only bothered about his image, his own importance, ready to support Angela as long as it does not hamper his chances at a meaningful career.

It’s also interesting to see how the attitudes of generations have evolved over the years. Ruth helps Angela in a way that Ruth’s mother did not when she was in a similar situation decades earlier. But she is also faced with the stark, debilitating truth – her children have flown the nest, are leading their own lives, while she must spend the rest of her days with Rex, a depressing prospect.

Will nothing ever happen to us, she wondered. Will this really go on for ever? Is it possible that nothing will ever change?

It’s her biggest irony that her children who fill her with joy are not the ones with whom she is destined to spend the remainder of her years. Things are further complicated by the fact that Rex has been unfaithful to her, carrying on an affair with a younger woman, although the whole of the Common is aware of this except Ruth.

A lot of the themes in Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting are similar to Mortimer’s other equally excellent book, The Pumpkin Eater – a philandering husband, the wife staring at a dull, desolate existence, the only bright spot being her children who give her a sense of meaning. Indeed, this novel gets its name from a toy Ruth buys as a gift for her neighbourhood friend’s baby but which she eventually keeps for herself – a child’s musical box whose “tune, picked up in the middle of a bar, was an insect requiem, desolate, thin as air.”

…Baby Bunting,

Daddy’s gone a-hunting,

Gone to fetch a rabbit skin

To wrap his Baby Bunting in,

Bye Baby Bunting——

The central women in both these books have successful husbands with comfortable homes but the dreariness of their days and the lack of purpose push them to the brink of an abyss. Quite a few of these aspects mirror Mortimer’s own circumstances, she acknowledged in one of her interviews that she has plumbed the depths of her own life for a lot of material for her books. Yet there is one fundamental difference – unlike her protagonists, Mortimer was independent in the sense that she was an author and had her writing to fall back on.

Valerie Grove, in her Preface to this Persephone edition, talks about how the kind of novel Mortimer wanted to write was already boiling inside her. She wanted an outlet to express the cloud of despondency that descended upon women of that era who could not really work and earn their living and had to fill time through endless and pointless activities and excursions. Here’s Mortimer –

“But this is how women spend their lives, not just the bad patches. And like it. And are gentle and loving and philosophical about it. What’s wrong with me?”

Mortimer’s portrayal of this affluent, claustrophobic community and its gender differences is spot on as can be gauged from this paragraph…

The relationships between the men are based on an understanding of success. Admiration is general, affection not uncommon. Even pity is known. The women have no such understanding. Like little icebergs, each keeps a bright and shining face above water; below the surface, submerged in fathoms of leisure, each keeps her own isolated personality. Some are happy, some poisoned with boredom; some drink too much and some, below the demarcation line, are slightly crazy; some love their husbands and some are dying from lack of love; a few have talent, as useless to them as a paralysed limb. Their friendships, appearing frank and sunny, are febrile and short-lived, turning quickly to malice. Combined, their energy could start a revolution.

As ever, Mortimer’s prose is brilliant, honest and incisive. While there’s not much by way of action, Ruth’s internal drama is rendered beautifully making this a very immersive read. In a nutshell, Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is another superb book from Mortimer’s oeuvre displaying the kind of psychological depth with much to commend it.

Death and the Seaside – Alison Moore

I was very impressed with two of Alison Moore’s novels I had read some years earlier; The Lighthouse and Missing with the latter particularly finding a place on My Best of 2018 list. As part of #ReadIndies hosted by Karen and Lizzy, it felt time to read another of her novels – all published by Salt – and I am glad to report that Death and the Seaside is also another wonderful novel.

Death and the Seaside is a terrific tale of failure, of being easily influenced, death and writing that unravels in a rather unexpected way.

Our protagonist is Bonnie Falls, a young woman about to turn 30. Bonnie’s life so far has been without any direction or purpose and she has not much to show for her half-hearted efforts. She is a college dropout having abandoned a degree in literature, which rather limits the job opportunities available.

After a few years of literary criticism, Bonnie has found that she could no longer read a story without seeing it through a lens of critical analysis, as if there was always some underlying meaning that you might miss if you were not paying attention. And at the same time, she began to see the real world in terms of narrative; she saw stories and symbolism everywhere. She found it all exhausting, and left her course – which her father had called a Mickey Mouse degree anyway – before taking her final exams or completing her dissertation.

However, she manages to secure two cleaning jobs, one at a pharmaceutical laboratory and the other at an amusement arcade, quite dreary but she needs the money.  

Bonnie has lived with her parents for most of her life, but as she approaches thirty they feel it is time for her to move on and out. Bonnie manages to find a place on rent at the end of the ominously named ‘Slash Lane’ but given that her income is not sufficient to cover the full rent amount, her parents offer to chip in a bit.

Meanwhile, Bonnie remains as untethered and adrift as ever. She seems to be going nowhere and can’t bring herself to dramatically alter her circumstances. Her state of mind is reflected in the apartment she has chosen – characterless rooms saddled with bric-a-brac left by previous renters giving the impression of the transient nature of an impersonal hotel room.

Bonnie does seem to show some promise in one area though – she is an aspiring writer. In fact, the first chapter of Death and the Seaside is actually the beginning of a story that Bonnie has typed out. Bonnie’s protagonist is Susan who goes for a holiday to a seaside hotel and witnesses strange happenings. A note inserted under the door of Susan’s hotel room has faint markings of some elusive words imprinted on it that only she can see; to all others the note is blank.

She walked over and picked up the scrap of paper, but when she looked at it she found that it was blank; although perhaps there was the faintest suggestion of something there, as if it had been photocopied to oblivion…She turned again to the piece of paper, and she almost thought that she might be able to make out a message after all, or just a word, but even as she looked, her sense of that dim outline disappeared, like a shadow when the sun slips behind a cloud.

In another incident, Susan is roused from her sleep in the middle of the night and notices the word ‘jump’ etched on the window. That story ends there simply because Bonnie has no idea how to proceed further.

We are then introduced to the other main character in the novel and Bonnie’s landlady, Sylvia Slythe. Sylvia comes to visit Bonnie one afternoon after she has settled down in the flat…

Bonnie opened the door. The woman standing on her doormat – a tall woman wearing a sheepskin coat – looked at Bonnie with a degree of interest that made Bonnie feel uneasy, and she touched the front of her dressing gown to check that it was securely fastened. The woman’s big, bright eyes made Bonnie feel like Little Red Riding Hood being looked at by the wolf.

The two women strike up a conversation which mostly consists of Sylvia asking Bonnie a slew of questions about her life and the motivations behind her writing. Sylvia takes an unusual interest in Bonnie, particularly in the specific story Bonnie has written about Susan and is very keen to learn how it will evolve. In their conversations, certain incidents in Bonnie’s past are revealed to the reader, which are subconsciously reproduced in Bonnie’s unfinished story although she vehemently denies it and insists that her story is just pure fiction. For instance, Bonnie has been troubled by sleepwalking in her childhood, and there are times in the past when she displayed a tendency to jump from heights as some sort of a death-wish.

“When I was a kid,” said Bonnie, “I started sleepwalking. I’d wake up and find myself standing at a window, like I was looking out, although I wasn’t really seeing, I suppose. But one time, the window was open, and Mum found me halfway out of it. She had to keep the windows locked and hide the keys.”

Sylvia is persistent that Bonnie finishes her story and with this aim in mind arranges a seaside holiday for the two of them, possibly at the place where Bonnie holidayed once as a child and which Bonnie inadvertently has used as a backdrop for her story.

Why is Sylvia so deeply interested in an unremarkable person like Bonnie? Is there something sinister lurking behind Sylvia’s motives?  This remains a mystery to the reader until it all becomes clear as the novel progresses and reaches its dark conclusion.

Bonnie is a fascinating character simply because she is so unmoored, malleable and easily influenced. She has no clue where she is headed and as far as society is concerned, she is something of a failure. For the most part, she is ambivalent about her circumstances showing no inclination to take charge. She is also readily suggestible. To cite an example, at her laboratory cleaning job, her colleague, the brash Fiona, who loves playing Truth and Dare, challenges Bonnie to open one of the lab doors and let all the animals free. Any other person would have point-blank refused or ignored Fiona. But Bonnie can’t say no, and actually attempts to carry out that challenge, then invariably chickens out only to be subjected to further ridicule.

Bonnie is also lonely. Every day, between her two cleaning jobs, she spends the afternoon at the cinema all by herself.

During these matinee showings, she was often the only person in the auditorium. In the dark, she ate her popcorn and lost herself in the film, something historical or futuristic, something set in another country or on another planet. It only took an hour or so, ninety minutes, for the world outside to become unreal. When she emerged, the familiar town would look strange, like a set, the oblivious shoppers like walk-ons. After horror films, she felt uneasy in broad daylight, and made an effort to avoid alleyways and underpasses and anywhere deserted…

Even her 30th birthday, a milestone one, is a rather desultory affair – a restaurant dinner where the only guests are her overbearing parents, Fiona and Sylvia, an odd assortment. It does appear that Sylvia is the only genuine friend that Bonnie has had for a while, and since neither of them has anyone else to go on a holiday with, they readily agree to go away together. Sylvia’s role in the story appears a tad murky and how their tales ultimately intertwine is what makes the novel so interesting.

With respect to the novel’s structure, most sections are from Bonnie’s point of view with some chapters devoted to Bonnie’s developing story about Susan. Only three chapters are narrated in the first person from Sylvia’s angle gradually giving a glimpse into her character and her reasons for striking up a friendship with Bonnie.

As the title suggests, one of the prominent themes of the novel is death or a preoccupation with death. There is a particular chapter in the book where Sylvia alludes to Bonnie’s abandoned thesis on the subject of how death and the sea are irrevocably interlinked.

All these unfinished stories of Bonnie’s are set by the sea, and one must ask: why this obsession with the sea? She does not live there, although she could. When considering this question, one ought to take into account the fact that in each of Bonnie’s stories – as well as in many of the novels on her bookshelves – the sea is a metaphor for death. Correspondingly, to be at the seaside is to be at the edge of death. The seashore is a threshold.

It is a chapter brimming with literary references such as Veronique Olmi’s tragic novella Beside the Sea, John Banville’s The Sea, Lovecraft’s The Shadow over Innsmouth, Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and so on. The novel also examines how a child’s upbringing in a certain manner can carry repercussions well into adulthood offering a window into Bonnie’s tendency towards jumping from heights and why the idea of death remains embedded in her subconscious.

In Alison Moore’s assured hands, the novel unfolds in a style that is clever, original and uncanny, as she effortlessly weaves in literature and elements of psychology in this compelling narrative. She excels at creating an atmosphere of dread and creeping unease especially in the way Bonnie and Sylvia’s relationship plays out. The last few chapters, set at the seaside resort, have a feverish, surreal quality to them as the circumstances described in Bonnie’s written story eerily merge with that of her own life. This is a very character-driven novel (there’s nothing remarkable about Bonnie’s life generally) and it is to Moore’s credit that she manages to make both Sylvia and Bonnie unforgettable.

In a nutshell, Death and the Seaside is another excellent novel from Alison Moore’s oeuvre, definitely worth reading.