Burgess wrote five novels in twelve months in 1959/60; this was one of them. It shows no signs of being rushed.
Janet, the narrator, is an ordinary working class woman who stacks shelves in a local supermarket and lives in a council house in Brancaster with husband Howard. Howard, orphaned by the blitz, sells used cars; he is an ordinary working class man except that he has a photographic memory.He uses this talent to win a television quiz show and then 'invests' the money on the horses to win big. Their lives are transformed: mink coats, posh hotels and foreign holidays. But Janet discovers new temptations and misses cooking baked beans on toast. And Howard, already traumatised by living under the shadow of the Hydrogen Bomb, finds extravagance meaningless, indeed demeaning.
Howard is a spooky character - Blitz-orphaned, Bomb-shadowed, talking and walking in his sleep - whose reaction to Janet's sister's suicide attempt is: let her die. Janet, the intelligent but ordinary girl forever worrying about her poor schooling, and conforming to the norms of 'people of her class' is a perfect counterpoint. They are torn between their old life and their new. Janet reluctantly embraces new horizons but decides that the orange sauce is bitter and the gravy cold. Howard reaches out to the new opportunities but realises he can never achieve them (he can answer mind-numbingly difficult quiz questions about books but he hasn't read them and he couldn't appreciate them if he had) and becomes embittered. As the story progress it becomes clear that the slightly sinister Howard has some dreadful plan in mind.
There are moments of shabby comedy. The TV show is supremely tacky And Janet and Howard are awkward and enraged by their new experiences. But the best line is: "The best thing to do, when you've got a dead body ... on the kitchen floor ... is to make yourself a good strong cup of tea."
(Burgess is the author of my second favourite first line of all time in his novel Earthly Powers: "It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.")
A beautiful story with a strong narrator voice, a gently inevitable plot, some fantastic characters and an overwhelming sense of the drabness of working class British life as the 1960s began. April 2015; 218 pages.
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57