Reviews

The White Family by Maggie Gee

John Sears

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.


The White Family

Publisher: Saqi Books
Length: 416
Price: £11.95
Author: Maggie Gee
UK publication date: 2002-03
Amazon
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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.