‘I know rather a lot about your husband, and about the circumstances of his death. And one of the things I know is that his death wasn’t an accident. And you know it too, Mrs Barnicott: you know it better than anyone, because you killed him.’
This is the telephone message Imogen is confronted with late one night, two months after her husband, Ivor, was killed in a car accident. The identity of the caller is not hidden, but their intentions are and equally more mysterious is how true his accusations are. However, Imogen has enough on her plate to keep her occupied as self-interested relations, (step-family, husband’s second ex-wife and a curious girl named Piggy), arrive for the Christmas holidays, supposedly to “keep her company.” The influx of guests coincides with strange encounters in and around Imogen’s house, curious strangers seen, objects moved and used – all with underlying hints that Ivor is not really dead…
This is very much a novel of bereavement and how (not) to be a widow, albeit told in a brilliantly dark comedic way, as it is explored from the inside of situation – i.e. through Imogen. This theme comes in strong from the very first page and remains present throughout the tale. Imogen is conscious of the awkwardness of being a widow, in social terms, which we can see when she observes how another person acts when they hear of her loss:
‘she waited for the tiny recoil behind his eyes, the twitch of unease, as he adjusted himself to the embarrassment of it. What do you say to middle-aged widows who turn up at parties so indecently soon? What do you talk to them about? Is the weather a safe topic? Or the state of the country?’
There is also that killer moment when you have to tell an acquaintance about the news for the first time:
‘Worst of all, perhaps, was the apparently unending procession of people who, incredibly, still hadn’t heard, and had to be clobbered with the news in the first moment of meeting. Had to have the smiles slashed from their faces, the cheery words of greeting rammed back down their gullets as if by a gratuitous blow across the mouth.’
It is in passages such as this one that you can get a real flavour of the edgy quality to Fremlin’s prose and in many ways she has a writing style which is strikingly modern, writing about her topic in a timeless manner.
Aside from looking at how her widow state affects others, Imogen also considers how the process is working within her, such as the first time she considers clearing Ivor’s study, a thought which her ‘mind shied at like a bucking horse.’ Yet she does not become stagnant and Fremlin has a delightful turn of phrase for showing signs of change: ‘a desire to move furniture is a desire for life.’ I find Imogen is much more honest with herself, allowing criticisms of her husband to mingle with her remaining love. Ivor was a difficult man in many respects and this is something Imogen can face up to, unlike those around her. I think it was very clever of Fremlin in her approach to bereavement to have Imogen’s grief held up against the female characters around her, particularly her neighbour Edith, who has been a widow for 4 years and who seems to play an eternal game of one man up-man-ship. It is very telling when the narrative says of Edith that ‘anything you could feel, she could feel better.’
And on to the matter of narrative voice, I think Fremlin’s free and unrestricted choice in this respect, is another strength of the book. The majority of the book is a sort of free indirect discourse in which Imogen’s actions are often reported in the third person, yet her own thoughts frequently filter into the story. This becomes all the more interesting when the reader has to assess whether she is hiding anything or not, as some of her thoughts could be interpreted in more than one way. Though despite this, Imogen, quickly gains reader sympathy, in the light of the things she has to put up with from her house guests.
I think Imogen also gains reader popularity through the fact, that in her widow state, she is not a pathetic figure. There is definitely some bite to her, even if only in her thoughts, what she likes to call her ‘wicked asides.’ Her reaction to the late night telephone call accusing her of murder is one such instance, as you could hardly expect her to respond in this way:
‘Only as it happened he hadn’t made her feel worse. He had made her feel much, much better. At the words ‘You killed him!’ a shaft of incredible, singing happiness had gone through her – a sensation more shocking and more inexplicable even than the accusation itself. For one dazzling, lurid second she was no longer a dreary, pitiable widow, but a glittering monster of wickedness.’
I also liked her response to the problem of other people’s kindness:
‘But what can friends do for you when what you really need is enemies? People on whom to try out your precarious, convalescent aggression: people you can fight with, score off, not bother about. Sorry, didn’t mean to hit you, just wanted to find out if I still could…’
I’d say it was reasonable to describe this as a slow burning novel, in terms of action, though there is definite increasing sense of unease and tension, over what is going on in the background. The use of the grandchildren as eye witnesses and as tellers of events, is important in the building up of the mystery, as the characters are less quick to giving it any credence. In terms of the ‘who’ of the story I would say the reader will figure this matter out quite easily, though that does not mean the ending is without surprise. There is a domino like effect in the ending, of how events transpired and it is in the final piecing of this that the reader is confronted with the characters as they truly are. For some there might be some changes to be made in terms of presumptions, whilst for others they remain nonchalantly unchanged and there is an element of surprise as to which characters will end up in which category. The last line also produces a wickedly mischievous ending to the tale.
I totally appreciate that this sort of book will frustrate traditional puzzle mystery fans no end, yet for me it has certainly been a reading highlight this month. I love how Fremlin puts family relationships under the microscope and the way ‘minute gestures […] can have devastating consequences,’ as Chris Simmons’ writes. So this book gets a big thumb up from me and hopefully I will remember to try more of her work soon.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver): Recognised Holiday
Calendar of Crime: December (8) Month Related Item on the Cover