Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Witch of Exmoor

by Margaret Drabble
Star Rating: DNF

I'm not very good at putting books down once I've gotten into them, which is why I've begun to set myself a 100-page limit. If the book hasn't grabbed me by then I stop reading, but typically something catches before that mark (though Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo didn't nab me until exactly page 100). I had trouble with this book because more than not nabbing me, it was actively irritating me up until about page 92. Then I thought, ooooh, it's improving, just hang on!

Well, I made it to page 150. And now I'm done. Those pages of the book can best be summed up by one of those political cartoons: a dog has had an accident in the house and is being punished by the dog owner (Drabble) gleefully pushing the dog (the reader) toward the pile of doody, which is captioned "The Prententions of the British Middle Class."

The Witch of Exmoor is a story of a family, the Palmers, who've risen to the British middle class and are lucky enough to enjoy great privilege. The three adult children are all married and have children, and their main concern is their mother, Frieda, who's recently sold the family house in favor of a damp, ramshackle castle on the edge of the sea and moved in there with every intention of becoming a hermit. (In my mind, if the family can afford to buy a castle, they ain't middle class. But maybe it's different for Brits.) Is Frieda senile - or worse, mad?

These characters are snobbish and unpleasant. At the beginning of the book, one of them brings up the question: if you could change society while uncertain of your own role in it (meaning you could conceivably end up at the bottom of the pack), would you?
'You could decide,' continues David, 'that a small contingent of the very poor are necessary for the proper functioning of society, and that it would just be bad luck - a sort of social sacrifice - if you ended up as one of them. It would be quite hard to argue, I think, that a numerically overwhelming mass of the very poor can constitute a just society, but it certainly has been argued.'
('Not to say practised,' murmurs Emily.)
I'm hardly someone who should object to parenthetical asides - I don't think I've written a single review yet that hasn't had one or two - but except for this instance in which she uses a character to comment, Drabble-as-narrator castigates her characters herself. She writes often in direct address, wanting to know whether you noticed this thing? You did? Of course you did. Yes, you're quite right in your low opinion. Here's some other tidbit of icky information. I grant that it's an effective trick; Drabble begins by describing the *type* of person each character is rather than describing the character, thereby pulling all the reader's own prejudices against that type into play. But when she's still doing it pages and pages later, it just feels like she's being a nasty gossip.

The "would you create a different society if you could?" question recurs throughout the first 150 pages. It's a fascinating question. The problem is, none of the characters ever go further than asking it. The book shifts to follow each of the characters, and each one in turn muses, "Hm, would I?" (and typically decides, "No") without any deeper reflection on the topic. The point, that they're snooty middle class folks who don't want to lose their status, is crystal clear anyway - was it necessary to have them each repeat the question over and over with no further development?

Things get even more heavyhanded when Drabble introduces the metaphor of disease and pollution for middle-class snobbery. Frieda, at her last family dinner, serves hamburgers made of mostly gristle to her family (as a symbol of their own pretentions to being something better than they are); later, when family members have been sent to assess the castle situation, this comes out:
David wondered if he could forgive Frieda for dispatching him to the abattoir and the chicken gutters. The stench and tumbled carcasses remained with him. That had been what she intended. The scrappy raw-pecked self-abusing fowl and stunned curly-headed bullocks haunted him, as did the pale girls in bloody overalls, the young men with dull eyes. The human factory farm. Pig skin, chopped gizzards, mechanically recovered meat. Cheap and nasty food for cheap people.
It's intensely unpleasant reading about characters who think things like that. And they think it, if not all the time, at least every few pages. But it's just that the metaphor is so obvious. One character even muses outright, "AIDS and leprosy, status and vanity." Truly, Ms. Drabble, we get the point. Please put the sledgehammer down.

Can I be mad that her plan worked? No - she means these characters to be repulsive, and they are. It's clear she's an excellent writer, too, if just from the quote above. I thought the book started getting better as I read past page 100, sort of similar to Muriel Spark's caustic style (though lacking her humor), but by then I was too burned out investing in characters who weren't bringing me anything in return to carry on. My problem is that all the points she's making are clumsily done. In my mind, satire and metaphor are scalpels, not bludgeons. If I wanted to read something that spelled itself out for me, I'd pick up my oven's owner manual.


  1. You make me wonder what happened on p. 100 of "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo". I can't check myself since e-books don't have pages. Curious....

  2. The first and last hundred pages of Dragon Tattoo are concerned with a different issue than the main plot; page 100 was exactly when that plot took over. (He goes to visit the old man and begins to hear the family story.)