On Saturday I went into Chester to Caroline Smailes' book signing at Waterstones. I got a copy of her novel Black Boxes and read it Saturday night. It's the story of a post-natally depressed woman who in the last hours of her life (she's swallowed the pills) is recounting her obsessive love for the anally retentive control freak Alex. Alex is not only a control freak, he's the son of one: his mother, Penny, is a virago who claims to be a feminist but for Ana, our dying heroine, Penny is the angel of death in disguise, taking decisions to 'help' the couple that are not born out of generosity or kindness.
The book is laid out in black boxes, all small, all framing Ana's memories and thoughts. It gives it the quality of a play, particularly as there are apparent 'stage directions' in brackets accompanying each box; add to that the Greek chorus effect of Ana's repeated wailings of how she loves Alex, how she must not sleep, must not blink etc and you might indeed think Smailes is practising to be a playwright. It seems a style suited to the 'light bite' age but this novel is anything but a light bite: it's bleak; the only colours used are red, black and white, underlining the starkness of the story.
The most harrowing section is Pip's diary: Pip is Alex's and Ana's daughter who struggles to cope while her mother lies on her bed, unkempt, unwashed and helpless as family life slides into chaos. Pip is saddled with a tragic younger brother who soils and wets himself regularly, and she herself is repeatedly abused sexually by a cruel school fellow who uses her and then sneers at her. She and her brother use sign language to communicate, while Alex and his mother speak in a code of reversal, emphasising Ana's extreme isolation. At times I got annoyed with the constant repetitions of Ana's wailings, and skipped a bit. But I couldn't skip Pip's diaries; these are where the novel has force and a dark power that is truly tremendous, and are impossible to put down.
This is not a story to recommend to anyone who's down in their boots! If you want to find out more about Caroline Smailes she has a blog: in search of adam.
Indeed if it were not for Caroline I would not be writing this blog: she ran a blogging workshop in Chester last year as part of the Literature Festival's events, and I am grateful to her for that and for the generous help she has given me as I've floundered into blogging.
Pour yourself a large brandy and read Black Boxes - If your own life is a tolerably good one, you'll value it even more after this!