A Family Affair
Short Listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2002. The Orange Prize goes to the best novel of the year written by a woman in English and published in the UK. The top prize is a cheque for £30,000, which is anonymously donated every year.
Maggie Gee’s eighth novel continues her fictional analysis of the social problems of contemporary England, and does so with the deftness and sureness of touch that readers already familiar with her work have come to expect. Gee has not been one to shirk the responsibilities of the writer—she’s addressed issues such as Hiroshima, global warming, homelessness, and the nuclear industry in previous novels. The White Family continues this honourable list of concerns, exploring racism, domestic violence, cancer, old age, sibling rivalry and multiculturalism in equal measure, no mean feat in a novel of just over 400 pages.
Gee’s narrative form allows these complex issues to be represented from many viewpoints, as each character is given ample space to voice their opinions and their feelings; while not quite a series of monologues, the novel bears comparison in terms of structure with other recent works like Graham Swift’s Last Orders or Gee’s own Where Are The Snows (published as Christopher and Alexandra in America). Gee’s early experimentalism, in novels like The Burning Book, has matured into a confident control of narrative voice and pace, without losing any of the political and psychological urgency that characterised her previous works. There’s also finally been some popular and critical recognition of these qualities, as The White Family has been shortlisted for this year’s Orange Prize for fiction.
The White family of the title are a disparate group, linked (tragically, as it turns out), by little more than their genes and by the social strictures that the institution of the family has imposed, to varying degrees, upon each member. They’re brought together by the “event” that sees Alfred White, the father, in hospital, and each member of the family gradually reveals their own relationship to him, to each other, and to their respective pasts, as the novel builds a convincing and at times harrowing picture of a family divided by love and united by hate. Gee is strong on emotions.
Her writing has at times a tense sparseness, which conveys an intensity of experience often beyond other writers: “It was green, so green,” remembers Alfred, describing the Park he’s tended all his working life; “and the smell of cut grass, and the shade of the oak tress, dappled shade, rippling over the hill in the breeze, and the wood pigeons billing, it was all like a dream . . . like the dreams I had dreamed in Palestine, but now it was real, the men had come home. But I lay on the hill, and I felt like a ghost.”
Alfred’s park—Albion Park—is the novel’s central space, a figure of the ideals of English dignity, tradition and order which each character perceives in different ways, as oppressive, or nostalgically yearned-for, or blindly fantasised. Pastoral England gives way, in the novel, to the urban contemporary, a world of empty shops, marauding teenage gangs, funding cuts and decrepit NHS hospitals. It’s not a world without values, simply one in which values have changed so much and change again so quickly that men like Alfred are forced to cling to what they know, however incorrect and unpalatable that may be. It’s testament to Gee’s writing that we sustain some sympathy for Alfred, and that the novel’s twist sees him undertaking a “mission” to see some kind of justice done, in express opposition to his wife May, who hitherto has seemed the moral centre of the book.
While not comic (old-fashioned absurdity is more the tone of her lighter moments), Gee is never po-facedly serious as a narrator, preferring instead to allow her characters to talk to us long enough to reveal, and potentially to heal, their pain. The White Family offers a series of studies in painful isolation, as each of the White siblings, along with a few of their friends and lovers, tries to make sense of life. Shirley, the daughter, has married and lost her true love, Kojo, to lung cancer. Her marriage to a Ghanaian provides one dimension of the novel’s more tangible tensions, provoking her father’s racism which is relived and eventually repeated in Dirk, the youngest son, whose sinister references to “Spearhead” (an extreme right-wing magazine) as the source of his political nous indicate one direction the novel will take. Darren, the successful journalist, returns from America with his new wife to visit his father in hospital, but also to confront other demons from his past. Each character operates in a slightly different linguistic universe, but the ethical and moral choices they make suggest immense voids between them, and, while Gee’s social and political commentary is never neglected, it is the role of the family itself that comes under closest scrutiny. Characters are sorted and distorted by family, which can’t be chosen, and can only temporarily be escaped, and The White Family avoids any glib abstraction out to ‘the family of man’—no simple solutions are offered here.
The device of the extended, narrated monologue allows Gee much freedom to develop and gradually expose each character to us. When we eventually enter Alfred’s consciousness, we are prepared for a character who has already been constructed for us through the perceptions, resentments and devotions of his family, and most powerfully through his wife May, whose role in the novel involves, among other things, offering a kind of literary commentary on events. The White Family is much concerned with writing, from the name Alfred shares with Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose poetry May is fond of reciting, to the writer Thomas Lovell, family friend, librarian, semi-successful novelist, frustrated lover, grappling with his unwritable book on postmodernism.
The arid theoretical language of Thomas’s prose provides one of the novels’ targets; “Who wrote this stuff? He’s so up himself”, comments Thomas’ neighbour when she reads a page of his manuscript. The helplessness of complex theories when faced with the stark realities of human pain and suffering is only hinted at in the novel, and in Thomas’ case is compensated by his own moment of triumph in front of a class of schoolchildren: “A real writer. Yes, I am! . . . I actually write books.” If Thomas can be seen, as I think he can, as an indirectly surrogate author-figure, then this moment of self-recognition is supported by The White Family itself, which is real writing - shocking, disturbing and, in obscure but long-lasting ways, satisfying.