Midlife awakening

The woman who went to bed for a yearSue TownsendPenguin2012, pp 437499

Eva, Sue Townsend’s 50-year-old protagonist from her latest book, says it all early on: “I preferred it when there were three channels and all you had to do was go duh duh duh.” She is talking about the TV remote. She is also talking, metaphorically, about a fast changing world and why she has decided to throw in the distowel, take to bed, reflect, let the home ‘n’ hearth manage without her.

This new Townsend book has its own doses of typical Townsend humour — a mixture of farce, pathos and laugh-out-loud absurdity revealing exaggerated truths. Yet the tone is more sombre than cheerful, and the laughs, occasionally 

muted. But then, that is the nature of the tale about a housewife who’s had it with being a homemaker, her puzzled and disturbed family, and the outside gawking world .Moments after her 17-year-old twins leave home for Leeds University, accompanied by their astronomer father Brian Beaver, Eva looks around her messed up home, picks and clears up a bit, then goes upstairs into her bedroom and without removing her clothes or shoes, gets into bed and stays there for a year.

Brian returns soon enough after depositing the twins and finds himself stranded in the garden. Yet Eva seems powerless to leave her new womb. 

As expected, the man is irritated and unhappy at Eva’s sudden and quiet rebellion, as is the rest of the immediate family, viz the two senior ladies living close by — Eva’s mother (blunt, naive and hard-working Ruby), and her mother-in-law Yvonne — described tellingly and so recognisably, thus: “It was exhausting listening and talking to Yvonne — who it seemed to Eva wilfully misinterpreted most conversations and lived from one grudge to another.”

Meanwhile the asocial genius twin pair at university find themselves facing their own problems — the parents unavailable on phone, plus their daily lives being controlled against their will by a sneaky, freaky, manipulative classmate called Poppy, somebody who enters the story again later with telling consequences.

After the initial grumbling, Brian manages to cope, cook, clean, and care for his weird wife and the colleague-lover in the garden-shed, Titania — the lady who finds herself actually empathising with Eva, both casually joking about Brian!

Harassed Brian is ultimately a good man who tries to accommodate all who now invade/share his life and broken home: there is Alex, the van-man who paints, does odd jobs and mainly becomes Eva’s new anchor and friend; Ruby and Yvonne who take turns in running the show, even as they battle old-age problems; and the twins, back home for Christmas, with the leech Poppy hanging on, causing havoc.

Plus there is a big group of misfits and losers from the world beyond, people who discover Eva, the angel at the window, and see her as their savior…and surprisingly, Eva in her new exalted mental state is actually able to connect with people and advise them; it’s a mad world where sane solutions appear in the unlikeliest places.

The story trots along to an end that is partly unsatisfactory, partly inevitable — but along the way there is enough good writing, character delineation, reflection on the times, some genuine laughs, memorable lines that need to be re-read and quoted — “The twins live in a very small world called the internet, where cynicism is the norm and cruelty has taken the place of humour.”

Townsend’s trademark mix of tenderness and burlesque is evinced in two distinct chapters — one that describes a ludicrous sex scene between the Viagra-popping Brian and a tired Titania; the other, a splendid long and detailed account of ‘how to do Christmas’, provided by Eva for a clueless Brian. Eva chokes up as she spills out all the waste, work and shopping that went into Christmas 2010. And Brian, rather late in the day, understands Eva’s angst.

Packed with characters, incidents, and insight, Sue Townsend, 30 years on, still needs to be read by older fans as well as the young — the ‘tweeple’ who need to understand the old.

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