All the reviews I’ve read and almost everyone I’ve spoken to about this book have said the same thing: it’s not as good as the Adrian Mole books. Still, since I’ve never read any of the Adrian Mole books, or even have the faintest inkling of what they’re about, I was pleasantly surprised by Sue Townsend’s The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year, the book I chose for Leicestershire.
Admittedly, it doesn’t say a whole lot about life in Leicester/the Midlands/England specifically, but as Eva builds herself a nest in her bed after her twins leave for university – not making any plans to emerge again – there’s a lot going on about forming a sense of belonging.
So why exactly does Eva crawl into bed in 2012 and refuse to get out again? Well, there’s a large amount of speculation from the other characters – her husband, Brian, her children Brian Junior and Brianna (yes, really), her mother Ruby and her mother-in-law Yvonne, her new handyman-crush Alex, her window-cleaner, the neighbours and, soon enough, the media and the hysterical followers outside her window…all have an opinion. Perhaps it’s depression caused by “empty-nest syndrome” (4) or by being taken for granted her whole life or by the knowledge of her husband’s lacklustre affair; perhaps she’s been “engulf[ed]” (248) by madness that makes her believe the floorboards are “made of jelly” (379); perhaps she’s an angel, a saint, a prophet making a stand against “how horrid the world [is], what with wars and famine and little babies dying and stuff” (325). Maybe, suggests a psychologist, Eva is “in the grip of agoraphobia, probably as a result of childhood trauma” (351). However, Eva flatly denies there is any problem whatsoever – she simply doesn’t feel like getting out of bed. Even the reader is not privy to any inside information from Townsend as to what the reason behind her major plot choice is.
As the novel goes on, Eva’s relatives become increasingly irritated by her behaviour: she relies on them to get her food, rearrange and slowly dispose of her bedroom furniture, board up the windows and doors, repaint the walls a dazzling white, answer the bell to fans and crowd-controlling police officers, and, if only they would agree to it, to dispose of her urine and excrement without her even having to use the ensuite. Blame and anger are fired at her from all corners, understandably, but with crafty characterisation Townsend steers the reader to believe that these judgements are nothing but harsh and hypocritical; everyone else would willingly disengage from the world if they could, too. In fact, some already do. Brian is so feeble that he is “slightly apprehensive” (6) around his own mother; emasculated in almost every situation, he cowers in his sheds at the bottom of the garden rather than facing Eva. Brianna, self-loathing, awkward and shut-off from the world, lives her life with “her face […] mostly hidden behind a long straggly black fringe which she pushed out of her eyes only when she actually wanted to see something” (11). Autistic Brian Junior voluntarily lives “in a very small world call the internet, where cynicism is the norm and cruelty has taken the place of humour” (270); the twins do not hide the fact that they want only “to be together in their own box-world” (20). Ironically, despite their criticism, almost every other character in the novel ends up “wish[ing] it was me in that bed” (35) and at some points Eva’s bedroom becomes seriously crowded with them all “sat cross-legged on the floor” (222) trying to join with her in shutting out the world.
Just as all the characters are shown to be preoccupied with building themselves a nest to hide away in, so, Townsend seems to suggest, is the whole of real, English society: why else would “property programmes” have such popularity or “Kirsty and Phil” be classed as modern “heroes” (10)? In fact, this novel presents the process of constructing a place in which one can feel at home – with some combination of four walls, comfortable furniture, personally-chosen décor and private memories – as the obsession of modern England. Not because of the opportunity for investment or return, or dependent on bank borrowing and lending rates – not, in other words, with financial or economic motives – but simply because putting an individual stamp on one’s surroundings is like laying claim to a fixed, stable identity and a solid right to exist. Arguably, this is something that Eva hasn’t had before. She’s never been her own woman, only a wife to Brian and a mother to her children. It is only when left alone that she begins the struggle, like a “baby”, “start[ing] again” (420), to develop a sense of self and a sense of belonging. No more arguing with Brian now as to whether they should live “in a minimalist modular system, far away from street lighting” or “an old pile in which people had died, with bedbugs, fleas, rats and mice” (22); she makes her own decisions.
Although Townsend doesn’t provide any definitive answer as to why Eva chooses to separate herself from society for a year, it seems to me that she simply struggles to find anything to get excited about any more in a world where her husband is so middle-aged and “he had started to make a noise as he got up from a chair” (40); where there is “incessant English cloud” (102) blocking out the sun every day; where politics has become so mundane that no one is even inspired to elect a prime minister, so that confusion arises in the coalition government as to who is actually in charge: “’Is it Cameron…? Or is it Cameron and Clegg?’” (117). Even further afield, outside England, there is nothing she is drawn to, for “there was nothing on the earth left to find – not when remote South American primitives were smoking Marlboro Lights” (58) and the whole profundity of space is reduced to chocolate-bar-terms in the mass-production of Galaxy, Mars and Milky Way confectionery. Human insignificance weighs on Eva, and she is frustrated that the best the English can hope for is to “tick along nicely” (73) in obscurity. So, out of boredom, she takes to her bed to cause “chaos” (190). It doesn’t seem like one thing could possibly lead to the other – but, oh my, it does.
Strangely, I liked this novel more for its critique of society than its comedy; or, rather, I found its thorough examination of ‘belonging’ all the more striking because of its farcical undertones and fluff-less dialogue. True, the novel is not laugh-out-loud hilarious (as some fans had expected), but I don’t think it loses impact as a result, since this way tragic elements of Eva’s life are also allowed to pervade in ironic fashion. What’s more, I think it is rare to find, in a supposedly comic novel, characters to whom it is so easy to warm, despite their often ridiculous names or habits. Overall, the plot is original and interesting, surprisingly engaging considering the protagonist does not get out of bed for the whole of the narrative, and its tone is fresh. Sue Townsend has a distinctive style that I feel confident I could identify again – suffice it to say, Adrian Mole is now on my list. 3/5 stars for this one, I think.
Next week I’ll be reading my first crime thriller of the challenge, The Chemistry of Death, by Simon Beckett. Join me, if you dare…mwahahaha.