Tuesday, 20 January 2015

CHARLOTTE MENDELSON: WHEN WE WERE BAD

I can't remember the last time I stayed up to finish a book. I know there've been books that I've longed to get back to; books I've missed the whole day long; books I've rolled around in, luxuriating, like a dog in fox shit. But staying up late in bed, with the light on, reading, just to find out what happens? This felt the other night like an experience I hadn't had for a long, long time.

When We Were Bad begins with a North London wedding: where part of you is drawn up, cringing, waiting for it to go wrong, and the other half is excited because somewhere you actually want to watch the car crash that will occur when this wedding doesn't go quite to plan. You want this outcome increasingly, especially as you feel the resentment of Frances (the character who the book focuses on more than any other) as her mum asks her the Worst Possible Mum Wedding Question: "Couldn't you at least have had a haircut?".

So part of its delight as a novel is just that it's really readable, in an old-fashioned, proper realist novel type way. It plays no tricks, it's no experimental fiction. But on the other hand, there are some set-pieces where you marvel at the technical achievement: for a start, there always seem to be a lot of people all talking at once in this book (perhaps not surprising when it concerns a family with four opinionated grown-up children, who don't all get on). And never confusion resulting. Most impressive for me was a big dinner party, on the night of Passover, where I sort of marvelled at how Mendelson had got across the sense of a massive room full of people where all different undercurrents and oddnesses were happening.

I was left thinking about it, too: was the ending too happy? (One of the main characters is dying in bed, they think, so it's not THAT happy, but certainly, it goes a bit warm and fuzzy round the edges towards the finish.) Were they a believable family? Would I have changed anything, if I was in charge? I found that quite fun to do, when lately, when I've had those thoughts about a book, they've been more of the "I'd have cut about half of it" variety.

It made me think this, though, finally: what is the point of a book like this, when entertaining family novels have been written, many times, and it doesn't push the art form forward at all? And I guess the answer in this particular instance is very simple: it was, to keep me awake at night.








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