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To Heaven by Water

By Justin Cartwright

It can sometimes be salutary to read books which lie outside the comfort zone of one’s usual ambit of taste. Justin Cartwright’s tenth novel, after the uncharacteristic departure of 2007’s The Song Before It Is Sung, a re-telling of the Von Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler, finds him firmly ensconced back in his comfort zone: dissecting the low-level existential angst of upper-middle class Londoners. As this is not a milieu I personally have much experience of or interest in, I place my findings on the table with the faint air of disinterested speculation usually associated with an anthropologist presenting the findings of research he has been conducting on the social rituals surrounding birth, coupling and death among some isolated, self-contained but vanishing tribe from the Amazon rainforest. But then again, as a South African transported to London, perhaps Cartwright also brings something of the anatomising outsider’s eye to the ethnic group he is cataloguing.
Sixty-something David Cross is eleven months a widower after the death from cancer of his wife of thirty-odd years, Nancy. He is also recently retired from his job as a news anchor at Global Television. He has a guilty secret he cannot tell his children, Ed, a thirty-two year old lawyer, and Lucy, a twenty-six year old early Christian coin cataloguer (someone, apparently, has to do it), to whit: as well as finding retirement agreeable, he is not exactly grief-stricken by bereavement either. In fact, ‘…to his own mind he is more himself than he has been for nearly forty years…’
He has taken to the treadmill and rowing machine at the gym, and become worryingly thin, to the extent that Lucy thinks he is on the lookout for a replacement for Mom. His t-shirts, shorts, Masai bracelets and leopard-skin trainers only further emphasise that he has fully shed whatever gravitas he once possessed. Lucy, meanwhile, is being stalked by a deranged ex-boyfriend, and worries that she doesn’t have a ‘real self’. Ed has been made a junior partner at his firm by his self-regarding boss Robin, an old buddy of Daddy’s, which connection helped him get taken on in the first place. But all is not so rosy on the domestic front, as he is coming under sustained pressure from his increasingly fraught wife Rosalie, a nervy and brittle presence intent on sublimating her failed attempts to become a prima ballerina into career motherhood. Indeed, so grimly oppressive has their ‘trying for a baby’ become, that Ed finds an outlet for good old-fashioned carefree sex with a conveniently self-centred trainee at the office. Another significant character is David’s dying elder brother Guy, who has spent his adult life in the Kalahari Desert researching Bushmen and their paintings, whom David goes to visit when it becomes expedient that he get out of London. Then there’s his circle of old chums, the Noodle Club, with gatherings of which the book begins and ends.

 

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The prose is deceptively conventional and gentle, to the point of seeming stilted, but then suddenly shifts point-of-view with alarming lurches from ‘He’ to ‘’I’, a technique Saul Bellow adopted from James Joyce. Cartwright is also fond of using the present tense to narrate past events, in an effort to lend them more immediacy. He has a definite tin ear when it comes to dialogue though, with most of the characters sounding the same, reaching its nadir particularly with the jolly-old-hockey-sticks exchanges between Ed and Lucy, an example of how an old guy imagines young folks speak to each other.
Thematically, the novel keeps returning to the notion of ‘how the world works’, the people who think they know and the people who really do. Aligned to this is the idea ‘…that successful people in the law and in corporations have an urge to acquire a philosophy, which conveniently explains why they are entitled to such a large portion of the world’s riches.’ The compromises of ‘self’ (if there ever was one in the first place) involved in making a life and getting ahead haunt all of the central characters.
What makes the book worth reading is the observational detail, both of contemporary London life, and of the Crosses’ shifting moods and perspectives, although we could do without the occasional sententious platitudes of the order of ‘We all believe we could have led other lives.’ Talk about stating the bloody obvious.
On finishing this book, its implausible surprises can seem a little contrived (although admittedly all novels depend on their own contrivances). It emanates the whiff of a Richard and Judy chattering classes construct, the kind of thing beloved of women of a certain age who turn up at book readings and signings in Jaeger suits, earnestly intent on self-improvement achieved by hanging out with arty types. But strangely, there is something that keeps you reading, even if it’s only that field research. Ultimately, the novel promises more than it delivers. A bit like life, in the Cartwright worldview.

First published in The Sunday Independent


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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