Confessions of a not so merry widow
NOT long after her 80th birthday, widow Margery Blandon finds herself atop the 43rd floor of the local Tropic Hotel, preparing to throw herself to her death. While she waits for the crowds below to disperse, she contemplates the recent catalytic events that led her to consider self-destruction.
Rosalie Ham’s third novel is not so much chick-lit but hen-lit, with sexy heels and cocktails replaced by sensible shoes and endless cups of tea.
As in her previous two books, The Dressmaker (2000) and Summer at Mount Hope (2005), Ham zooms in on a close-knit group of relatives and friends. The result is a cosy, sudsy kitchen-sink drama that can become a bit claustrophobic if you long for vistas that extend beyond the picket fence and the pub.
Ham’s protagonist is an easily recognisable type: Margery is one of those grumpy old women who seems to be prematurely pickled in disappointment. Politically and morally conservative, she has lived in the same house for 60-odd years and finds it difficult to accommodate any changes, even if her ailing health necessitates them.
That there are plans afoot to tinker with her living arrangements further sours her already querulous disposition. As she murmurs to her long-dead twin sister Cecily, her loved ones have been conspiring with each other and there’s no one she can trust any more. Her daughter Judith and son-inlaw Barry are grasping and avaricious, desperate to send her into a retirement home. Her son Walter means well but a boxing-related dent in the head means he’s vulnerable and easily manipulated, while her other son Morris has disappeared to Thailand in a fug of suspicion.
Then there’s ongoing disputes with ageing neighbours, friction with the home help and her own proclivity for falls and stumbles. Feeling besieged by forces beyond her control, Margery even fails to take her usual comfort from the proverbial wisdoms of desktop calendars (‘‘Deceit always returns to its master’’, ‘‘ Everyone’s got plans until they get hit’’, ‘‘ Fall seven times. Get up eight.’’). There doesn’t seem to be any epigrammatic platitudes that deal with the possibility of flinging yourself off a balcony.
The narrative moves at a pace one would expect of a pensioner’s progress. At times the daily domestic minutia of an octogenarian is tediously and needlessly spelt out (a whole paragraph can be devoted to the making of tea and toast) but the repetition of small chores and simple pleasures does describe the tightly circumscribed world inhabited by the lonely senior, a life enlivened by listening to Magic Radio Best Tunes of all Time, doing a Big Shop on pension day and cross-stitching yet another piece of artwork.
Margery admits that her greatest asset is ‘‘ her past, since there’s not much future left’’ and she reminisces (with perhaps too much fondness) on decades-long grudges with neighbours and family. These anecdotal set-pieces are darkly comic and provide much needed colour and levity to an otherwise dull existence, one measured by routine punctured by the occasional outrage.
The characters that populate this little strip of inner suburbia are all quirky grotesques; some are sympathetically drawn, others verge on the edge of caricature. Ham touches on various issues including the gentrification of old working-class neighbourhoods, and the quiet, desperate souls who live unencumbered by family, but for the most part the book concerns itself with Margery’s sense of familial and community betrayal as a consequence of the secrets kept and the lies told for her own protection. There’s the usual collection of rattling skeletons in the communal closet including adultery and illegitimate offspring and despite years of containment, it all comes tumbling out in the end.
Margery has always regarded herself as a model mother, wife and neighbour but given that the book is about the re-evaluation of