Thursday, 3 February 2011

REVIEW Cuckoo by Julia Crouch

I remember a girl so bold and so bright
Loose-limbed and laughing and brazen and bare
Sits gnawing her knuckles in the chemical light
O where do we go now, but nowhere

From 'Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere' by Nick Cave

Beware the ordinary. Beware domestic contentment. Underneath its veneer lies menace - passions thwarted, ambitions destroyed, secrets at ransom. In Julia Crouch's splendid debut novel, Cuckoo, even the simple act of stirring custard happens against a backdrop of dread and mental disintegration. Don't be fooled by the pink suitcase on the cover; instead look to the halo of darkness and the harsh windows beyond. This is a book where the facade of the ordinary splinters, cracks and opens into an abyss. In the novel, the suitcase is just about the only thing that is pink. This novel is Barbara Vine, not Cath Kidston.

The fiendish overlay of psychological unravelling on face-value domesticity is one of the book's strengths. Crouch will intermingle random acts of sex, violence and despair with the map references of the every day, like brandnames, for example - parcels will come from Amazon, candles will be by Jo Malone, bubblebath by Aveda. People make lovely pies, and pasta dishes and bake stuff. Meantime, property will be wrecked, blood spilled, poison administered, and drink-fuelled sex gorged on in harsh moonlight; in bedrooms, parks, studios, cottages and fields. Interested thus far?

Rose and Gareth live in a rural idyll in the West Country. They have two little girls, a renovated farmhouse, an absentee American movie star as one obliging neighbour, a  best-selling crime writer as another and the baker in the village used to do cake for Konditor & Cook. It's hard not to imagine Crouch taking an impish glee as she takes a frantic pick axe to all this Boden wonderland with the arrival of ex-rock star Polly - suddenly widowed, with two small boys in tow. Polly's husband, an old friend of Gareth, has died in a car accident. From here on in, Rose's life is plunged first into paranoia and then into headlong disaster.

Polly, the name intentional I think, is a somehow demented shadow of PJ Harvey, and certainly the descriptions of her seem very like her real life doppleganger - although hopefully that's where the similarities end.  Fictional Polly is a different kind of force of nature, and throughout the novel, the reader is caught up in the tension of understanding her, gauging the level of her control of events as Rose's life is thrown into one insanity after another. She is wraith-like in some ways, and really, the reader may in the end be baffled by her, unsure of her - just fully unsure. It really does go that mad.

In the press release that accompanied my copy of the book, it says that the novel was inspired by Simone De Beauvoir's She Came To Stay and Nick Cave's The Boatman's Call album. To a Nick Cave fan, this says it all really. Not to mention the fact that Cave now lives in Brighton, a town which has a pivotal part to play in the past and present of the narrative. For some reason - and I'm being lazy here because I haven't read it in twenty years - I felt it reminded me a bit of Fay Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She-devil. There is just something of that macabre interplay between characters that made me see that connection. There is something too, as I said before, of Ruth Rendell in the novel - that clinical observation of passion and obsession smashing up the perfect and the mundane with intense suddeness and terror. The cuckoo that ransacks the nest.

So, Cuckoo is a thriller. Like all thrillers, the reader's final enjoyment will depend to a large degree on being satisfied by the ending. As with all novels where the reader juggles at least three possible outcomes throughout, there will be the chance that that the eventual outcome isn't as expected, for good or for bad. To some extent, the ending wasn't the one I anticipated - but this isn't really a criticism. It just wasn't the ending I wanted, and that's a different thing. Can't say more, without loading up on spoilers, so you'll just have to read the book! What I'm hinting at, is that the novel probably tests our own sense of the idyllic, and what a 'happy ending' really is, really ...

Cuckoo is just one of those novels that plays with the reader, just as much as Polly holds up a cracked mirror to the sublime life that Rose has created. Her arrival is like a spider being crushed, a ladder walked under - she breaks the magical thinking spell we all try to throw over the life and the people we love. In that respect, it is as much a fevered imagining of all the terrible things that can happen, how little control we have over them, as it is a conventional thriller. Polly represents chaos, fear, danger, risk, loss, hurt, harm. In part because she is all these things, but also because she reflects and uncovers it in other people. Particularly Rose, maybe the reader too. Polly is the herald of 'harm's way'.

It's well worth some time in the nest, Cuckoo, just hold on tight ...