REVIEW by Gwen Davies

NWR Issue r5

What a Way to Go

by Julia Forster

Oliver Tate, the protagonist of Joe Dunthorne’s novel Submarine (made into a major film by Richard Ayoade in 2010), commits his mid-teenage years to a mission to mend his parents’ relationship. This obsession (and his terminal social awkwardness) leads him to neglect his girlfriend, particularly during her mother’s cancer scare. Twelve-year-old Harper, the protagonist of What a Way to Go, being only five when her parents actually divorced, has more of a battle on her hands than Oliver (who fails to distinguish between a bad patch and imminent split). The blurb does couch Harper’s campaign – which it most definitely is, complete with lists, morale-boosting self-help hints and sexual etiquette rules – as one to fix ‘her parents’ broken hearts’, and the novel opens with a touching picture of an early childhood spent seeking, among video credits ‘A sign that one day, my parents would get back together’.

But where Oliver’s mistake is to apply a cure to a healthy organism, Harper does learn to recognise the terminality of her parents’ marriage: on page 1 she declares ‘Here’s the story of how they never did [reunite].’ Oliver’s brush with mortality, meanwhile, is only third hand compared to young Harper’s, who has to live with the loss of a father figure. She also must bury illusions she harboured of her mother Mary’s own mental health, capability, common sense and selflessness, as well as delusions that her dad is selfish, and uncaring at micro and macro levels.

Harper realises some of the above as the denouement commences, which is when Forster gets to grip with her theme of death (kept out of the first half aside from Harper’s forays ‘down Oncology’ seeking savoury snacks and illegit change at the faulty hospital dispenser, plus her occasional habit of visiting graves). Ambitious plot developments (mainly fuelled by Mary’s generous choice of lodger and huge sense of drama) make Part 2 fairly zip along. The sitting room (as Mary’s suitors multiply to include a stylist heir, a bank manager and a style-less teacher), dominated by Kit’s pre-ordered coffin hosts set-pieces with kitsch- (no pun intended) and farce-factor to rival a version of The Grand Budapest Hotel relocated to late Eighties Midlands:

It’s when Kit goes to open it as if he’s about to climb in that I get the willies. Only, he can’t get in on account of there being six empty bookshelves inside. Kit doesn’t seem surprised by this; in fact, as soon as he has opened the lid, he starts to fill the shelves with stuff from all over the house… a shriveled cactus… his Queen cassettes; a stopped clock… the top-shelf copy of Hot Flash for Frances… Mum’s Wedgewood vase (she doesn’t dare complain); the upper and lower plaster cast of Mum’s rotten teeth… the box of Grecian 2000.

The crusade of larger than life, drinkin’ smokin’ Mary to secure a mortgage through marriage is unwise on many levels (especially installing a death-bed into a child’s home), and might be seen to be yet another of her obsessions, alongside yoga and man-hunting in heels. Yet, she is trying, with some poignancy, to keep a lid on seething emotion, with spending at its heart: symbolised by mother-and-daughter anxiety-busting visits to check their balance at the cashpoint. We come to see the nature of Mary’s mental challenges, since taking on a promotion at work, against her better judgement (‘It would be long hours, H, and I struggle to keep up….’) throws her nights and days into tailspin as Christmas catalogue proofs blow in like asbestos snow.

Moreover, the financial security Mary seeks underlines a political injustice to divorced women who in 1988 apparently were routinely denied mortgages. And in any case, Harper counts her pennies with the same degree of zeal her mum pursues greater economic harmony, as she cuts a deal with Kit the chocolate salesman (fifteen per cent of his day rate plus off-cuts) on one of his first visits, thus salvaging from her theft of his Secret Mix market-research bars a lucrative and tasty focus group position.

Nevertheless, the epiphany of this coming-of-age novel (fittingly, for a book about mortgage) is re-evaluation: of Harper’s estimation of her individual tastes, potential and need for control. At the outset, Harper’s musical and fashion preferences are at the populist end of the cool–uncool spectrum (rara skirts, Bananarama: Blondie only merits one mention!). Gradually, though, book references outnumber music, and the zeitgeist of that decade of right-on-ness twitches her nostrils. Not solely, it seems, does she take to CND, veganism and 1984 to court her first boyfriend. She graduates – prematurely, according to her library – to Judy Blume, while the readership her writing enjoys augments from customers to her cellar-based Harper’s Bazaar (groan!) stall, through local paper death-notice readers and a private audience to a touching poem dedicated to her nearly, and nearly-perfect stepdad, to this novel itself. And though the guilt (most likely induced by her Socialist Worker subscription) is rather overplayed, she does struggle somewhat with the family’s turn of fortune insofar as it allows her access to a school she disapproves of (to the tune of £628.69/term or £1886.07/year at today’s prices, to adopt the novel’s comic financial precision).

It is true that Harper’s decision to write her own story is couched in financial terms (there was a ‘proven’ gap in the market for books on ‘the facts of death’), and a cynic might ask the author whether similar factors influenced the choice of her protagonist’s name in the year following publication of Go Set a Watchman. But this heroine’s search within her own past is for sacramental blessing: absolution from control and responsibility as her parents’ go-between: ‘Bottom line is this: maybe you’re just not ready to understand things until you’re regularly bleeding every twenty-eight days, have a mortgage and receive urgent correspondence.’

‘Low voltage’ rural Hardingstone, the novel’s second setting, could have led What a Way to Go into much darker territory. Feeble-watt dad Pete’s idea of holiday fun is to visit a war memorial, and weekend R & R comprises repeat visits to the village fete. At home with Dad, the atmosphere is near desolate, most keenly felt at the empty fridge by Harper, who’d be grateful to him for even a gesture of cupboard love. It must have been tempting for the author to give him, rather than Kit, the health scare since that may have given him strings to pull on Harper’s affections, and yet one can understand her plumping the drama into Mary’s lap. Yet certainly, threads introduced in the first half (for example Pete’s friend, photographer Patrick, the likely source of truth about her parents’ wedding and early marriage which Harper purports to be her main quest) could have spun more elaborately throughout the novel, denying blowzy Mary her coffin-upstaging act. I carry a torch (weak, naturally) for quiet Pete and look forward to Forster’s putting this type of older father-figure central stage in future.

Although I love the voice here, with its similarities to Young Adult author Hayley Long, I’ll end on a few minor caveats which could have been addressed at editing stage. Although Harper does read US author Judy Blume and the novel is prefixed with a prologue which might have been written during Harper’s later years, MTV was only available to US audiences from 1981 so it’s a pity that the voice does here and there lapses into Americanisms which were unheard among 80s teenagers as far as I can remember (although I lived further north than Harper). I rejoiced to hear ‘All right?’ as the main greeting, used across age and class and was pleased to see ‘I swear’ and ‘the full monty’ but cringed at ‘I guess’, ‘traybakes’ and the verb ‘to total’ for writing off a car. Similarly, while there are here some wonderful images, for instance Mary, so nervous she is seen to ‘knit’ her legs into the bank manager’s office, the verve of Part 2 at times hyperventilates the author who takes to noun-verbs such as ‘Mary Poppinses’ for magicking things from a carpet bag. Viewpoint is mainly controlled with mastery; one lapse only was a reference to ‘dry-clean-only school’ by the protagonist to a teacher who was not privy to a family joke. And I spotted only one factual error: ‘register office’ for ‘registry office’ (although again Harper’s charming colloquial voice could account for this).

Although What a Way to Go includes some tips for a good end, including getting used to your coffin and doing it at home, the message is far from morbid. The book is indeed a ‘life-Kit’, as shown by Harper’s obit which underscores what she will preserve from her nearly step-Dad’s life, including ‘It’s who you are inside that matters most’ and ‘Don’t take things so bleeding literal.’ It’s a lovely message for children with ‘blended families’ and inadequate parents, that it’s not just parents that give you what you need. Even bank manager Mike, the prototype nearly step-dad, taught Harper all she knows of the (financial) aspects of ‘the bottom line’.

Gwen Davies is editor of New Welsh Review.

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