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Will Eaves, This is Paradise – TLS

17/02/2012

After two novels much lauded for their acuity and quiet wit (Oversight, a gay coming of age debut, and Nothing to be Afraid Of, about actors working on the theatrical fringe), Will Eaves brings to the surface a subject lurking in these earlier books: the exploration of Englishness and “the Eden of normality” built after the war out of the sacrifice, stoicism and solidarity of preceding generations.

The particular England in question is middle – dead centre one might say, because as with his previous works, This is Paradise takes the long view, ingraining now with earlier thens, lending even his most up to date England a quality of overhang or afterlife. The sense of belatedness is reflected in the narrative structure – a story of two halves concerning the suggestively-named Allden family, a minor-middle class bunch who start out in Bath in the Seventies and then regroup in the present day a few miles down the road in a nursing home where Emily, the family’s now amnesiac mother, has been taken to be looked after by the professionals, and to die.

In the interim, time has worked its reverse magic and the four children in adulthood seem less vivid and more aimless than their younger selves, though three lead averagely successful lives (Benjamin, the youngest son, imagines his mother rising from her deathbed and exclaiming: “I’ve got one of each, haven’t I? One married, a single parent, a homosexual and a black sheep”). The location of the nursing home in which they come together again, in a wasted mining village, an infernally “bleak outpost”, reinforces the idea of drift, as if Eaves is registering the once steadfastly middle class now sliding to the periphery. It’s a falling off, however, accompanied by persistence, a mundanely heroic muddling through by which the family cope with their mother’s deterioration, and continue, as they have always done, to tread gingerly around Clive – the difficult, brilliant son whose adult life has turned out to be one of “catastrophic independence”.

Clive’s predicament is at the heart of the story – the trap in which he exists and the way, in turn, it entraps the entire family: this is the novel’s quarry and plot. Born with a heart defect and crippled in leg “clamps” as a child, Clive is his mother’s most beloved, and the family’s most adversarial member – the Allden’s very own rebel angel. His difference and ferocity cow his siblings, provoke petty one-upmanship in his father, Don, and leave unchecked the taunting “endearments” he aims at Emily (“beastie”, “witch”, “hideous crone”). The family “conceal themselves from him”, fearful of his brutal honesty, repulsed by his pedantry, pride and self-neglect (all “coming at you in waves”, too overwhelming and disproportionate for dailiness or rubbing along); and so, lied to, Clive’s “need to establish the truth”, his radar for hypocrisy, becomes ever keener.

Outside the family he also arouses mistrust – “The gap between his abilities and his deficiencies made people suspicious…How could he read Milton and stumble over four times four?” – further undermining him. Wondering at his abnormality, he seeks models of power (Wagner, von Clausewitz). But Benjamin, who is obscurely aligned with Clive through the subtle ostracism of his own homosexuality, guesses that his brother believes himself emotionally crippled not because of the way he is spurned, but as the result of some inherent flaw, “Some evil, welling up inside” – which is how conformism works its discipline.

Around this hellishness ordinary family life proceeds. As in his earlier novels Eaves writes with great insight about human interaction: the countless ways in which we read and try to come to terms with one another’s meanings and performances (the “charades” Clive is so quick to identify); the abiding sense that the more familiar we are, the more life becomes a comedy of cross-purposes. There is too the rough justice of families: Don’s paternal solipsism, which makes him incapable of entertaining other people’s difference (a very God-like quality), is admired for its truthfulness, while Emily’s perceptiveness is resented, her attempts to engage with her children often seen as intrusive and manipulative. He is excellent too on those things common to all family life – the effort to forge collective well-being and the exasperation caused by dissent or non-cooperation: on holiday in France, infuriated by Clive’s violent outburst over a category dispute (whether their holiday home is infested with hornets, bees or wasps) Don shouts at his squabbling offspring, “We didn’t have…this when we were growing up…You’ve no conception. This is paradise.”

William Blake, ‘Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels’, Paradise Lost Illustrated, 1808

In the novel’s second half, there is a shift in tone: the Alldens in facing Emily’s disintegration are exposed to their own mortality; Clive returns to his miserable Hastings flat and then walks out into the night sea. But the outcome is not what we expect. The novel retracts and an ending is contrived, one circumventing the question George Orwell put to writers, and which Eaves discussed in a recent TLS Freelance column: “What am I trying to say?” In the final pages there are several nudges about not trying to pin meaning down: an elaborate doodle by Clive, an “extraordinary envisioning” adorned with lines from (an unattributed) Paradise Lost, displays great intricacy but bears “no single sense”; Benjamin tries, unsuccessfully, “to make a pattern of unrelated things…And the lesson was that you shouldn’t go looking for significance”; while in the novel’s final paragraph Don, thinks “He would be sorry…Or not sorry. What did it matter?”

The question lingers of quite what Eaves intends by his Miltonic frame. He reads Satan as a psychological not political figure, and Clive’s perversity, given no outlet or ambition beyond his family, finally succumbs to domestication, the bonfire in his mind “relaid in a swept-clean hearth”. When Don holds Clive’s newly framed drawing up to the window, the world and the picture meld together and “the Devil” seems to disappear into the light. A coda reprises a moment from the opening pages concerning Miss Voy, a clairvoyant. It all makes an oddly consoling finale – about the power of art to recast, elucidate and dispel fear – for a work so indebted to Milton’s satanic adversary.

This review appeared as ‘One of Each’ in the TLS on 17.02.2011.

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