Sue Townsend’s comic gifts drive a novel that has plenty to say about what makes life worth living
The twins, Brianne and Brian Junior, brilliant if autistic mathematicians, have just left for university. The maternal nest is empty. Eva decides to stay in bed. She has had enough of the world and of her husband, Brian, an astronomer, and, though she doesn’t yet know this, an adulterer as well as a bore. She wants to lie there and think.
This is the starting-point for Sue Townsend’s new novel, a comedy, full of laughs, which nevertheless is full of sadness, on account of the manifold miseries of the world. The novel’s epigraph is attributed “to Plato and many others”: “Be kind, for everybody you meet is fighting a hard battle”; but a line of Byron’s would have been equally suitable: “And if I laugh at anything, ‘tis that I may not weep.”
Sue Townsend always writes with the lightest hand. Many of her characters may fairly be described as grotesques. But the same may be said of Dickens, at least in his early novels. Comedy always deals in exaggeration. There is, for instance, one character, Poppy, whom the twins meet – are indeed besieged by – on their first day at university. Poppy is an incorrigible liar, a fantasist, a leech and a thief. She is as impossible a fancy as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Yet on the page she is as alive as Miss Havisham is, and even, like her, sympathetic, even while you recognise that off the page she would be ghastly. Bringing off a character like Poppy is evidence of high skill.
Eva herself is equally preposterous. One can of course understand that a woman, free at last from the daily duties of a mother, might decide to take a few days in bed. But she goes far beyond what is credible, and it is equally incredible that people would rally round as sympathetically as so many do – with only the dreadful Brian and the twins themselves giving way to irritation.
Yet this doesn’t matter, partly because so many of Eva’s exchanges with others – her mother and mother-in-law, a doctor and district nurse – are very funny. It is also because the questions Eva poses and the opinions she expresses offer an intelligent criticism of contemporary life. One can understand how the dreadlocked Alexander, once a banker, now a van driver with ambitions to become a landscape painter, falls in love with her. Alexander is quite the sanest and most normal character in the novel. He is its moral centre, the voice of sympathy and decency.
Eva attracts people whose lives are in turmoil. A conversation with one visitor changes his life. His story is featured in the local newspaper. Eva becomes a celebrity, “a Saint in Suburbia”. Fans gather in the street below her bedroom window. The regional TV station sends the self-important star of its news show to interview her. Eva’s mother, Ruby, is delighted: she watches him with admiration every night. Eva refuses to see him. He is indignant, and tells Ruby to “stress that I have interviewed every celebrity to set foot in the East Midlands. I have shadow-boxed with Muhammad Ali. I have asked Mr Nelson Mandela penetrating questions about his terrorist past and, may God rest her soul, I have flirted with Princess Diana.” He bent down and whispered in Ruby’s ear. “And, by God, did she flirt back.” Nevertheless Eva sees him, and his black lesbian camera-woman, off. It’s a lovely and very funny scene.
Comedy is difficult to write, certainly to sustain. Sue Townsend manipulates her huge cast with dexterity. She is amused by the pretensions of mankind, aware of how often what seems normal behaviour to ourselves may appear as absurd to others. She recognises that nobody is a figure of fun to himself or herself.
Even idiots like Brian have a sense of their own dignity. This is necessary if they are to keep going. Yet, while she points up absurdities, and revels in doing so, she is never unkind. Her writing has perfect poise. She may echo Shakespeare’s Puck in his recognition of the folly of mortals, and invite her readers to share her delight in exposing her characters’ self-importance and self- delusions, but she does so gently.
This is at the heart of the charm of her writing as it has been since she brought Adrian Mole into the world. Ultimately Eva will discover that it is “too difficult to travel alone”. The last words of the novel are: “It’s kindness, isn’t it? Simple kindness.” This is not a sentimental ending. On the contrary, it’s a hard-earned one.