Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 256 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
The chairwoman of the 2010 Orange Prize, Daisy Goodwin, recently came out and said she was a bit sick of female novelists writing about misery. “There’s not been much wit and not much joy, there’s a lot of grimness out there,” she told The Guardian. That might be true, but fictional misery isn’t the sole domain of women writers. The Widow’s Tale, by Mick Jackson, is a case in point.
Jackson, who’s probably best known for his Booker shortlisted novel The Underground Man (which I haven’t read), focuses on an unnamed woman coming to terms with the death of her husband. She’s in her early sixties and has fled the marital home in order to escape the unrelenting and unwanted sympathy she feels she does not deserve. Holed up in a rental cottage on the windswept Norfolk coast, she cuts herself off from friends (she has no family — the couple did not have children) and tries to put her life into some kind of perspective. She does a lot of thinking, a lot of walking and hits the bottle more than she should. There’s the constant worry that she may, in fact, be losing her marbles.
Written in diary style, the book charts the narrator’s emotional ups and downs. The writing is rather effortless but goes off on bizarre tangents as she recalls incidents from the past. It takes a long time, at least one-third of the book, to discover that the grief she feels is not so much for her husband but for herself. Secrets are divulged, but once you learn what’s eating her, it’s hard not to think, is that it?
In fact, The Widow’s Tale isn’t that much of a tale. There’s certainly not much of a plot, and the only real character in the whole book is the narrator. Her husband is so hazily drawn that he is frustratingly unknowable. The same could be said of her best friend, Ginny.
But despite these flaws the book is very readable, perhaps because the prose style is uncluttered and to-the-point. And the narrator’s voice is completely believable, never whiny and often comic.
It’s not a book that will grab you by the throat, it’s too gentle, too subtle for that, but it’s a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of a woman on the brink of a nervous breakdown as she reflects on a 40-year marriage that was not all that it seemed.