Crocodile Soup by Julia Darling

Towards the end of her life, painter Romaine Brooks failed to have her autobiography accepted by any of the publishing houses she submitted it to because the childhood she depicted was so calamitous that apparently no publisher would believe her. There is something about Julia Darling’s Crocodile Soup that makes one suspect that the heroine’s story could give Brooks a run for her money.

The novel centers on Gert Hardcastle, an Englishwoman in her thirties who is plagued by isolation, sadness and invisibility. First there’s Gert’s work, which is becoming increasingly stressful. The drastic changes at the museum where she is a curator leave her annoyed and anxious about her job. Then there are the letters Gert has begun to receive from her estranged mother which are often riddled with pleas for forgiveness, help, and money. Gert’s only source of comfort is in her infatuation with Eva, a young girl who works at the museum café. Even the buoyancy this romance provides Gert is fleeting, however, as she wavers between hopefulness and acknowledging that Eva is most likely straight.

Gert’s awkward pursuit of Eva is interspersed with recollections of her traumatic childhood that allow us to understand Gert’s loneliness and her desire to love and be loved. We meet Gert’s mother, Jean, who is “quite oblivious to the fact that she was a mother,” her father, George, who disappears to Africa to take care of his crocodile farm, and her brother, Frank, who is as dysfunctional as he is brilliant.

From the beginning, Gert’s life seems destined for strangeness. She is forced to make her bedroom in the house’s attic that is haunted by the ghost of a Victorian poet. She convinces herself that she is responsible for her mother’s brutal fall down a staircase, is sexually molested during a school field trip, and when Jean sends her daughter to a doctor, Gert is diagnosed with a gullible heart. As Gert enters her teens, her insecurities are redirected into rebellion. At school she is an outsider, and the only friend she does have in her class she ends up tying to a tree. Gert drolly muses, “if they had asked me why I had tied an innocent girl to a tree I would answer that, in the greater scheme of things, being tied up for a few hours is relatively unimportant.” The only people with whom Gert feels comfortable are a coterie of oddballs, including Rosa Van Durk, the psychologist who performs an exorcism on Gert’s haunted bedroom, Mr. Berry, her tutor, and the unnamed artist who lurks in the cemetery near Gert’s school.

It is with the help of these individuals and steady doses of Captain Beefheart that Gert manages to maintain her sanity. Inevitably, however, the family self-destructs: Jean grows increasingly obsessed with religion, Gert temporarily runs away from home to Glasgow, Frank retreats into the lifestyle of a monk, and George becomes consumed by the project of building Oona, a boat that he eventually disappears in.

The themes of loss, isolation, and desperation are ripe with possibility, and yet Darling’s treatment of these topics often leaves the reader cold. Gert’s vulnerability is so extreme that it is hard to find her endearing, and often she merely comes across as pathetic and naïve. Moreover, the tragedies of Gert’s childhood are so unrelenting and over the top that after awhile they become a bit hard to take.

Perhaps even more problematic are the logistics of Crocodile Soup. Admittedly Julia Darling’s writing has a dream-like quality to it; the way in which the plot unfolds is surreal, occasionally inventive and nonsensical. Yet there are multiple occurrences in the novel that don’t strike one as part of Crocodile Soup‘s surrealism, but as simply absurd. The relationships in the novel often feel forced, such as Eva’s unlikely acceptance of Gert’s affection, and the telepathic connection Gert has with Frank (an intriguing concept, yet ultimately unbelievable in light of their nearly nonexistent relationship). Some of Crocodile Soup‘s discrepancies come across as utterly outlandish. It seems ludicrous that Gert would be a suspect after the mummy from her museum is stolen. Even more ridiculous is fact that, while visiting Frank, Jean meets and falls madly in love with a man at a mental institution.

The strained relationship between Gert and her mother is equally perplexing. The more letters she receives from Jean, the more conflicted Gert feels about answering them. Other characters admonish Gert for ignoring her mother’s letters, insisting that she must help her, but with every horrific flashback — including Jean forcing Gert to live in the haunted attic, verbally abusing her in public, and openly favoring Frank as her preferred child — the reader can’t help but wonder why Gert should feel obligated to welcome this abusive woman back into her life.

But perhaps suggesting that Gert shouldn’t feel responsibility for her mother is a bit too easy, and if Crocodile Soup is anything, it certainly isn’t that. Although the reader is prepared for a strange, whimsical story of a woman who attempts to deal with her future by acknowledging her past, Darling’s stilted characters and implausible situations maim the affect. It is entirely forgivable that Crocodile Soup isn’t a happy, carefree read. Unfortunately, it isn’t particularly enjoyable or enlightening one, either.