WITH dappled memories, strewn like the leaf-fall that litters Edinburgh’s Meadows – across which she takes regular walks with Yoyo her dog — Lizzie Fairbairn, in her 70s, rustles the past in a cameo journey of recollection spanning a lifetime.
One quarter nostalgia, three parts painful, exacting pilgrimage into her tortuous buried early and middle age, The Waiting describes an inner journey triggered, for Lizzie, unexpectedly by a telephone call from someone called Rachel Keller. “I’m calling about Marlene,” she announces. “I’m Marlene’s granddaughter from Switzerland... and I’d like to visit you.”
More than a simple interruption, this is a splash, a threatening ripple disturbing Lizzie’s banal existence as an Edinburgh widow. Lizzie’s head is already thumping, for Marlene’s name conjures “acts of glory and disgrace”, resurrecting Lizzie’s younger self.
For 200 pages Lizzie rises, dips and rises through the pool of then and now, her past and present intercut. She was born in 1927, “the year of The Jazz Singer” – but it is Marlene’s life, not Lizzie’s, that shimmies and sways to the errant rhythms of the era, that spurns the quietude of convention, the choice made by Lizzie, guided by duty rather than love.
And yet, they lure each other fiercely, these friends from childhood, thrown into conspiracies and scrapes, a bond that weathers Marlene’s outrageousness, her bouts of selfish, drunken infidelity and mendacity, her failed marriage, her flibberty-jibbet life. Marlene’s husband kills himself – one of the story’s several suicides.
Partly because Lizzie’s memories are so colourful, the energy of the enervated past eclipses the ordinariness of her present Edinburgh existence. But it is the catalyst for those memories – Rachel’s abrupt, unwelcome arrival and that of her boyfriend, the “Hawk” – that upturns the routine of Lizzie’s life with small excitements. They purloin Lizzie’s house keys. They may have drugged her. She fears they may usurp her, the cocky Hawk occupying her mind as he does her home.
Now in old age, her step-children feature in her life but do not inhabit it. She feels guilty; perhaps her loneliness is a self-directed punishment. Her one-time closest friend, a homosexual, died, terrified, in her presence. Her true love, Dafydd, from her youth, “the only man ever to make me glow inside”, she let slip away, leaving much unsaid.
The story is mediated through Lizzie’s sensibility. She is carping, self-reproachful. Rachel’s arrival with its unearthing of the past, becomes both a threat and an opportunity for redemption. “I had always resented Marlene for living life to the full,” Lizzie admits. Now she realises, amends may yet be made.
Regi Claire has written a novel charged with honesty and pathos, creating a heroine so repressed that she risks the reader’s disenchantment or disengagement. Lizzie dominates, and because so much of her life has been second best, perhaps peripheral, some of the novel’s minor characters flit through the story like glorified bit parts. Even Rachel seems not fully realised. Thankfully Marlene, gargoyled, uproarious, sinful Marlene, breaks that mould.
Much of the relish this novel provides resides in its author’s gift for language, its rhythms and cadence, its power to evoke, its potential for fresh and striking imagery. Thus, trees reach into the sky to “tear it apart”, or someone’s signature scrawled on a page is “like a burst of flyaway laughter”.
As a study of growing old – which in part it is – this story never resorts to caricature. Its ending – an anti-epiphany – is consistent with its scrupulously unsentimental outlook. It isn’t entirely satisfactory. Its ambition outdoes its achievement. But it marks a writer who challenges herself as she does the reader. And she can write.