Every so often the Gods align and the universe convenes to make it possible for me to read in one glorious, champagne truffle sitting, a book from front to back. And so it was yesterday, the day after my forty-first birthday, when snow put a stop to school and my son was spirited away by his Father who exchanged our curly topped child for The Women Who Went to Bed For A Year and a Next voucher in celebration of the fact that I will always, always, always be one whole year older than he is. To know me is to understand that if there has been even the merest flutter of snow, I will almost certainly be camping indoors, refusing to leave the house and indulging a chesty cough with buttercup syrup and a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. So with two foot of the stuff baricading the front door, I curled up on the couch and took said book in hand and devoured it within a couple of bothersome, but happy hours.
Sue Townsend's latest book tells the tale of one Eva Beaver who decides on the day her twin prodigies leave for university, to take to her bed and stay there. To have a think. And so begins a darkly comic romp through what it is to throw down the reigns of domesticity and opt out of your own life.
Peopled by caricatures and telling a tale so preposterous I wasn't, at first, sure I was going to be able to make it through what ultimately ends up as a description of one woman's descent into the gentlest of madness. It is after all written by she who brought us Adrian Mole and there is no escaping Townsend's black comedy take on life in modern day suburbia, but the central theme is so enthralling and some of the characters so sympathetic (special mention here to Alexander, the dread-locked painter who is kindness itself) that one cannot help but be drawn into Eva's story.
Imagine then if you will being Mother to twins who verging on autistic mathematical genius need no other human input than each other. Imagine being married to an astronomer whose attentions are permanently diverted by the stars in the night sky and the sexual overtures of the colleague he has been conducting an affair with more than eight years. Imagine spending many a year embroidering a chair so beautiful you cannot help but want to show it off to your guests, only to find that somebody has abandoned a soup spoon on it's silk damask frame. This then is the catalyst for Eva's demise. For a moment she wonders who would do such a thing and which in her battery of of stain removing chemicals will cure it and then she chucks an entire saucepan full of tomato soup at the chair and takes to her bed for a year.
We have all been there haven't we? We have all felt momentarily disappointed by life and those who are supposed to love us and just as we sympathized when Delia Grinstead stood up and started the long walk out of her life in Ladder of Years, so too do we recognize the urge to take to our beds, and thus the concept of taking the odd duvet day to the extreme, as Eva does, is a concept so compelling we cannot help but wonder what would happen if we too simply stopped. For that is what Eva does. She stops and bit by bit she dismantles herself and her life until there is almost nothing left beyond the clothes she lies around in and the "white pathway" she builds between her bed and the en-suite bathroom so that her absolutions can go on without intervention by those who suddenly find themselves having to organise twenty-four hour care for her.
Be warned: much of this book is absolutely ludicrous. Seriously ridiculous. Cringe-worthy, embarrassing and occasionally painfully stupid. It really is. Not having a funny bone in my body, much of me despises overt literary humor like this, and yet if we are capable of utterly ignoring the more ridiculous plot asides and abysmal character development, at its heart The Woman Who Went to Bed For A Year is something akin to beautiful.
Eva rejects almost everything in her life: instructing all the furniture be removed from her room and having the entire space painted white and it is upon this cloud that she floats, while crowds of the lonely, the eccentric and the mad gather at her window, paying homage to she would not get up. She is for a while a legend in her own lifetime, while those who have to remember to feed her, scratch their heads and fall apart and pick themselves up again and treat her always with tenderness and bewilderment. For this is a book about kindness and a families capacity to care while simultaneously destroying it's members. It is about what happens when an act of pure selfishness runs like a weeping vein through the course of a household and how gentle we are all capable of being even when anger seethes and threatens the very foundations of our tomorrows.
In the end Townsend gathers up the threads of her story and presents them to us like so many knots she cannot untangle. There are no answers. People are ridiculous. None of us know what we are doing and we all fall in love with the wrong people for the wrong reasons. And fail to see it when it is front of our eyes. And yes, life is pretty pointless. And when we stop, nothing and everything falls apart and life goes on and above all else people are kind.
So terribly, terribly kind.