A Solitary Grief—Bernice Rubens

[I decided to read this 1991 novel in three sections, writing a detailed commentary after each section. Spoiler alert: If you read this, you will find out everything that happens in the book as I read it.]

30th December 2020
Chapters 1-5
I’m finding this a complete oddity. I suppose that almost 30 years ago, Bernice Rubens was writing for a demographic that no longer really exists. I assume those North London sophisticates have moved on from a McEwanesque fixation on the self-centred middle classes, whose foibles are all too recognisable and are therefore ripe for satire. Rubens is being satirical about an arrogant and almost childishly immature psychoanalyst shocked beyond measure to discover that his new daughter has Down’s syndrome, and… I’m just wishing the satire was wittier, the characters more believable, the situations even vaguely plausible. It’s supposed to be a comedy, but comedy has to begin with a reality we can believe in rather than with tropes you’d expect to find in a 1980s sitcom. If she’s aiming for McEwanesque, well, she should do a bit more research and try not to give the impression that her characters live in a vacuum. But would it help? I had already had enough of Ian McEwan by the time Rubens was writing this, so maybe I was never in her target audience anyway.

So, Alistair Crown. Most of the novel is written from his point of view, but in the voice of a narrator who wants us to know exactly what his limitations are. Like, he’s mean, choosing flowers from graves to give to his wife in hospital, Virginia, rather than going to the expense of buying new ones. He’s as rationalist as you would expect a doctor to be, but only when it comes to saving money: ‘Well,’ he thinks as he tears off the last of the cards—Bertie, we loved you. Mum and Dad—‘Bertie would never have seen that.’ But it’s different when he hears the news that he’s made absolutely no plans for. When his wife gives birth to a daughter it must be her fault, and even more definitely so when he hears it has Down’s syndrome. Of course, his first reaction is denial, then a crude insistence that the child be adopted… and so on. He’s a shit.

I would find it easier to believe in him if this novel had been written in the 1960s, and if he were not a trained doctor. But he is, and we can only guess the decade in which the girl is born. Maybe we aren’t supposed to think about it too much, any more than about a doctor who really, really doesn’t understand that no man can assume that he is bound to father only healthy and intelligent boy children. It doesn’t feel satirical, it feels silly. There’s some nonsensical stuff about names because, of course, he hasn’t thought of any for a girl. Variants of the ‘George’ and ‘James’ he was going for? Nah, too second-best. He lets his wife choose—signifying, in their marriage, that he has no interest whatsoever. He’s been making that clear from the start. As it happens, while admiring Alistair’s thoughtful choice of all her favourite flowers—how we laughed—she finds a card. To Doris. Gone but not forgotten. ‘We’ll call her Doris,’ she shouts to Alistair as he heaves up the contents of his stomach in the bathroom.

This is Chapter 1, and it’s all like this. There are plenty of implausibilities, like the chance encounter he has with the woman he thought he should have married a long time ago that leads to what he hopes might be a new start. This happens to be at the very moment when he has decided—that is, he hasn’t really—to go home for Doris’s birthday party. He doesn’t go to her parties, ever, because it would be hard to do without looking at her. And, reader, he never does that. The rest of her, yes—anything from the neck down—but the face, no. Not ever.

But there are two things he does do. He cuddles her affectionately once she’s in bed, to a degree that quickly escalates into a kind of fetishism as he keeps her face out of sight or even covered. Rubens doesn’t make it clear if by ‘every part’ of her body she really means he caresses and kisses every part…. And the other thing he does is ‘doodle’ her face. He starts with a circle, then draws a generic Down’s syndrome face, which he considers its ‘signature.’ Over the years—she’s five at the point I’ve reached—what had started as a comfort to distract him from the weirdness of his never having seen her face, has become another fetish. He thinks of it as an addiction and he tries to curb it.

Other stuff happens. The affair with the old flame ends up going nowhere. He tries to force the issue by phoning her at home and putting the phone down when her husband answers but, when he takes a day off to spy on her, he sees her arm-in-arm with a colleague as she leaves work. it’s a sign of his hopelessness that he phones her husband at work to tell him what’s happening, and he catches them in flagrante. It’s the end, because Alistair knows that she would guess how her husband got to find out. But—and I can’t remember why or exactly when—he has told Virginia about the affair. They have been living separately in the same house for years by now anyway and, after some more hiccups and failed attempts to make him engage with Doris, she decides it’s time for him to move out.

Meanwhile, he’s a Harley Street psychiatrist. His clients are well off, and he doesn’t feel guilty about taking their money for a service he doesn’t really believe in. But the new situation leads him to such an unusual level of anxiety that he blurts out what he really thinks and loses two clients in a single morning. It’s the morning after he’s left, and he’s spent a sleepless night on the couch he’s never lain on before, and he’s phoned an agent about looking at an assortment of flats for rent that afternoon. Earlier in the week, by chance—it’s that sort of novel—he had met Esau, who had invited him for lunch. Esau once came to his office for a consultation… except it isn’t that at all. He had wanted to show Alistair his beautiful body, and it turns out he has enough inherited money to make appointments with all the private doctors he wants. The beauty is in his ape-like hairiness. Go figure.

The point is, Alistair decides to go for the lunch, which is that day. Esau’s house is huge, and he walks about it naked. If you can call it naked when there’s almost no part of him visible under the hair. Alistair is fine with this, and when Esau invites him to live there he says yes. Which he’s done just before the end of Chapter 5. But the chapter actually ends with what I take must be a clue as to how this is going to go. During the lunch, Alistair realises he doesn’t have to talk to Esau in the way he talks to anybody else, because he has no expectations. He didn’t come to him because he needed help. During the lunch, it seems to Alistair that has discovered some kind of soulmate, somebody he can confide in. He tells him he has never seen his daughter’s face. Later that day, as Esau gives him a key to the house, he tells him ‘this is your home now.’ He also tells him, ‘There were many times when my father couldn’t bear to look at me.’

I’m guessing it’s a clue because It suggests that Alistair is going to learn a thing or two about human relationships from this other troubled man. We’ll see.

2 January 2021
Chapters 6-9
Was I right? Yes and no, but mainly yes, I’d say. It’s looking a little as though Alistair is Scrooge, far more open to the possibility of redemption than he seemed when we first met him. By the time we get to the end of this middle third of the novel—which only covers a few weeks—he’s realised both that he can’t imagine a life without Doris, and that he is going to give up his psychoanalysis practice. He never believed in it, so why carry on pretending? One of the reasons it happens so quickly is because Rubens throws more new things into Alistair’s life than have happened in the almost five years since Doris was born. His new-found friendship with Esau very quickly becomes the most important thing in his life, because he’s never had a proper friend before. Obviously, because Rubens has never seemed to be interested in him as a real person with a back-story. He’s empty, waiting to be filled with the experiences he’s having to go through now that nothing in his former life has prepared him for. Obviously.

Surprisingly quickly, he and Esau seem like an old married couple. More than once, Rubens invites the reader to imagine an outsider seeing them, comfortably at home drinking their favourite nightcaps and, later, during a disastrous weekend trip to Paris. I find Rubens’s presentation of them, and the French police’s oddly squeamish reaction to them as probable lovers, as something else from an earlier decade. The hotel staff, now assuming them to be gay, are mortified. This reader, now assuming Rubens to be an idiot, came quite close to giving up on this curiosity of a novel that must already have seemed very dated when it was first published.

But I need to rewind. As soon as he starts his house-share with his new best friend, Alistair surprises himself by the level of concern he feels for his welfare. One of the things that Rubens adds to the mix almost immediately is Esau’s sudden decision to put himself into greater jeopardy. Harley Street doctors, in this universe, are very accepting of his eccentric displays of self-declared beauty. Like Alistair a few chapters back, they look on, bemused, and let him go on his way. In several months—I forget exactly how many, as if it matters anyway—not a single one of them has called the police, or followed up his bizarre visits in any way. But now, based on his father’s strange antithesis to them, he decides to try dentists. The first one he undresses for looks terrified, he later tells Alistair, and hits him in the face with something heavy bit of equipment he picks up. Alistair makes him promise to be more careful… which doesn’t stop him trying it on with a masseur in Soho. Who, of course, tells him he is beautiful and urges him to come again.

It becomes clear, even to the congenitally obtuse Alistair, that Esau is a very troubled soul. And, to make it easy either for the reader or herself, or both, there are parent-child issues in his life as much as in Alistair’s. All Esau’s obsessions derive from his father’s unwillingness to accept him, so he has established a pattern of deciding to believe the opposite of what his father believed. Hence, his appearance is beautiful, dentists must be perfectly good people, not the torturing monsters of his father’s stories, classical music is a daily delight… and maybe other things Rubens throws into the mix that I’ve forgotten about. And, reader, Alistair starts to realise, or starts to admit to himself, how much damage he must be doing to Doris.

Are you believing any of this? Nor am I. Days turn into weeks, and Doris’s school concert approaches, to be quickly followed by her birthday. She’ll be wearing the pink gingham dress at the concert, the one Virginia hung outside Alistair’s door on the evening he left, in what he took (wrongly, Rubens helpfully tells us) to be an aggressively provocative gesture. He is still not committing to attend either the concert or her birthday party, and yet Virginia—to be honest, Rubens makes so little effort to endow her with a properly rounded psychology that she seems something from another sitcom—makes things easy for him. He can have a divorce if he wants, he can see Doris when he wants—sure, he can visit her once she’s in bed, whenever he likes—and it would all be fine. But…

…I’ve mentioned his disillusionment with what he now sees as the pointless charade of his job. Add to that both his growing concern for Esau and his sense that he has got to face up to his responsibilities as a parent sooner rather than later—and then another bombshell lands. His parents have never seen even a photograph of Doris, and want to come over from America for her birthday. Ah. His relationship with them seems no better than Esau’s with his dead father, and he has never told them about Doris’s condition because he knew they would do what he did, and blame Virginia. They, and especially his mother, never liked her anyway….

Enough? Not quite. Because, on that Paris trip, Esau had got himself arrested because French doctors seem not to be as tolerant of exhibitionist nutters as British ones. Worse, something that Alistair says to the police to avoid a court appearance—that Esau is in his care—makes Esau decide that he needs to find a new way to settle the matter. Without telling Alistair, he decides to do show himself to a cosmetic surgeon—who, appalled at first, eventually talks to him rationally. Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, he says—and this seems to make something click in Esau’s head. When Alistair finds him later that night—he’s late, because he’s been talking sensibly to Virginia about stuff—he’s shaved all his hair off, and he’s hanging from the highest beam in the attic.

I said a lot happens, and now Alistair feels obliged to help an Australian cousin of Esau’s with the funeral. But it’s going to be all right. Virginia isn’t really as bothered as she thought she was about a new man who has magically appeared in her life—things can happen very fast in Rubens-land—and, now that Alistair seems to have suddenly developed human characteristics, maybe there’s a future for all three of them after all. As if I care.

4 January
Chapters 10-14—to the end
How disappointing. A couple of days after Esau’s death, Doris is abducted from school. My exasperation at Rubens’s throwing yet another melodramatic ingredient into the mix was gradually replaced by my exasperation that the man doing the abducting must be—guess. Rubens scatters clues all over the place, so that an alert reader might guess the truth almost as soon as it happens. Not only does it happen during the morning Alistair cleared his diary in order to run some funeral-type errands for Esau’s cousin Simon… the final sentences of Chapter 9 had offered an even bigger clue: ‘He had most of the morning to go about Simon’s business. And to do what he had to do.’

We find out in the final chapter, in fact, that he wasn’t at all sure what it was he ‘had to do.’ Some time later—it doesn’t matter how long—in his now guilt-ridden retracing of his movements that day, all he had in mind was to go to Doris’s school. But a combination of the stupid personality Rubens has endowed him with and an oversight at the school that she has also concocted mean that he is faced with a choice. Doris has accidentally been left in the playground for a few minutes with a few other children but no adult supervision. And it’s during those minutes that Alistair arrives. On impulse, he takes her in order to—what? He doesn’t know. He drives her to Hyde Park, not knowing whether he will just take her for a walk or strangle the life out of her. He eventually opts for the latter.

Do you need to know any more? Between his leaving Esau’s house in the morning and leaving his tortured, unsatisfactory life forever—he ends up hanging himself a year after the murder, for which he is never caught—we are offered a plausible but unremarkable enough account of what it would be like for parents to go through the first few days following the news of their only child’s disappearance. If we haven’t been quick enough to pick up on the clues Rubens has left, it’s told straight. It might be moving if the reader was at all interested in them… but Alistair is impossible to take seriously, and Rubens has never been careful enough to furnish Virginia with anything beyond two-dimensional tropes: she’s a long-suffering wife, a loving mother and… and that’s it really.

Of course, a bit of stuff happens along the way. Neighbours are friendly at first, then uncomfortable and even embarrassed. Virginia’s parents arrive every morning to spend the day with them as they wait for news. A new witness arrives on the scene, having been away on Mars for a while, and gives enough information for the search to be narrowed down to a copse of trees in Hyde Park. Doris’s body is found… etc. As all the predictable things happen from then on, and as a troubled patient of Alistair’s makes a false confession hat is fairly quickly dismissed, we are to believe that Alistair is having to live through a vortex of inner turmoil. As his doodles of Doris’s face are replaced by doodles of what we take to be an imagined woodland scene, a picture starts to build up. These doodles become a pictorial confession of his crime—but, like the face-doodles, always kept locked away in his office desk. They don’t assuage his sense of guilt at all. Obviously.

I’m left only with the feeling that I could have spent my time more productively doing something other than reading this book. It offers no life lessons, only poorly-drawn characters responding as best they can both to their own implausibly presented inadequacies and the kind of things that happen in fiction. Did I guess it was Alistair who killed Doris? Not until fairly near the end, mainly because I wasn’t looking for such potboiler melodrama in a novel I was trying (and admittedly failing) to take seriously. It seems that he kills Doris because of his inability to face his own demons. And he kills himself because he still can’t.

And him a trained psychiatrist too.