This review first appeared in The Bottle Imp, published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies (ASLS)
Lizzie Fairbairn, protagonist of Regi Claire’s The Waiting, might just be one of the most surprising septuagenarians you’re likely to encounter in literary fiction. Visited in her Edinburgh home by the vaguely sinister Rachel, granddaughter of her childhood friend Marlene, Lizzie is forced to confront incidents from her history that put her repressed, seething nature through the wringer. As the story shifts from the 1930s through to the present day, Marlene’s complex influence over Lizzie’s past unfolds as Rachel’s intrusion into her current life grows increasingly alarming.
An ominous atmosphere settles over Lizzie’s story from the start. As a child her perception of the world around her seems skewed, as if she views nature as inherently cruel and predatory. Through Lizzie’s eyes, trees reach into the sky and tear it apart, the wind viciously tears leaves from branches ‘by the fistful’ and the sun sears human flesh like a branding iron. Seagulls screech and jeer at her, and a bunch of chrysanthemums are perceived by Lizzie as ‘stiff and uncompromising. Callous.’
Even as an old woman, at a time in life when tempers are assumed to have mellowed, Lizzie’s view of the Edinburgh landscape surrounding her is laced with violence: ‘On good days I sometimes picture the hill coming furiously alive, tossing its giant head to cast off the human fleas crawling all over it.’ Her neighbour Miss Erskine’s battle with aggressively spreading skin cancer seems only to reinforce this notion that nature is remorselessly uncaring. Lizzie’s spite becomes fused with her malevolent view of the natural world, and she appears to take pleasure in her fantasy of the hill harming the humans who have dared to walk upon it.
An incident in Lizzie’s childhood, when her little dog Liquorice becomes pregnant even though she is far too young to bear a litter, seems to have a profound effect on her. How could Mother Nature allow such a wicked thing to happen? Lizzie’s mum blames her daughter for allowing the dog to fall pregnant, and Lizzie keenly feels the torment of this blame: ‘My heart felt stone-heavy with grief and guilt. Ignorance is the root of so much harm. So much evil.’ Lizzie, for her part, blames the unrepentant Marlene for the tragic incident, and attributes it to her friend’s remorseless immorality, leading her to wonder whether ‘the world would be a better place if people were truly without conscience, as wilful and capricious as Marlene.’ At least that way we would be spared the agony of contrition.
This lack of morality in Marlene raises the much-explored issue of ‘nature versus nurture’, a matter examined in countless texts, from Oliver Twist to Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin. Whether a child can simply be born ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or whether we are always a product of our upbringing, is sensitively documented by Claire throughout the development of Marlene’s character. More than once, Marlene’s mother Mrs Gray asks the question: ‘Why on earth did I go and make her?’, a question which explains a lot with regards to the woman Marlene becomes. This callous dismissal of her own child, as if Marlene was no more than a hindrance or an error, is compounded by the fact that Marlene is illegitimate, the shameful by-product of a sexual affair Mrs Gray had as a widow. Rumour has it that twice Mrs Gray tried to leave the baby on the doorstep of the child’s father and twice had the bundle returned to her.
This rejection is repeated years later when primary school teacher Mrs Robson gives Marlene the role of Mary Magdalene in the school nativity play, a calculated act with significant repercussions. As a bastard child, apparently unfit to play the part of anyone but a ‘fallen woman’, Marlene’s Mary Magdalene is crow-barred into the story, despite the illogical chronology, and made ‘to stumble about the stage like a drunk, searching and searching, unable to find her way to the stable.’ Lizzie notes that no one, not even Marlene or Mrs Gray, seems to see anything wrong with this, but Lizzie’s ‘heart still bleeds for Marlene’ when she thinks of it, years later.
Lizzie puts a great deal of emphasis on another incident from her and Marlene’s childhood. Marlene has no idea that she is a bastard child, a product of perceived sin, until Lizzie tells her one day as they sit on a primrose covered riverbank. Lizzie becomes convinced that this is the moment Marlene loses her innocence and childlike faith in people, that it is perhaps she who is to blame for Marlene’s unravelling; that this is why her friend stopped being ‘the trusting child she had once been — before the primrose bank …’ Was Marlene born ‘bad’, as her mother seems to suggest? Or was this a self-fulfilling belief, the very reason why Marlene turns out as she does? Was the social stigmatizing to blame, or is it all Lizzie’s fault?
And yet, it is apparent to the reader from the very beginning that it is Marlene who repeatedly leads Lizzie into horrible situations, not the other way round. Whether it is Marlene persuading Lizzie to take a colleague out for lunch so that she might humiliate him by probing him on his past crimes, or getting the pair of them sacked from jobs in a hotel, or leading Lizzie into a museum where she is assaulted, Marlene is shown to continuously lead her friend astray.
This malignant influence appears to lead to a gradual decline in Lizzie’s own sense of morality. When Marlene comes into some money she decides to visit a poor tenement family as an act of charity, taking Lizzie along for the ride. Merely mimicking the act of helping the impoverished family, the pair fails to do anything but take from them: ‘These people were poor alright. Yet they made us sit down on their least rickety chairs, closest to the fire, spread a fresh tablecloth and offered us tea and homemade pancakes. And we, who had come empty-handed, ate their pancakes, drank their tea, and left.’ Even when the newly moneyed Marlene humiliates her friend by visiting the dressmaker’s where Lizzie works and abusing her newfound position of superiority, Lizzie still remains her friend.
Indeed, Lizzie seems to keep missing her chance to leave this noxious friendship, which is perplexing and, on occasion, infuriating to read. When Lizzie muses ‘How come I hadn’t ditched her long ago?’ the average response is surely an exasperated: ‘Yes, how come?!’ Lizzie knows her friend is a user and a thief (‘She just took things, used them, then lost interest’) and yet she stands by her, forgiving her time and time again, perhaps because of her guilt over the primrose bank incident, or perhaps because, in her heart, Lizzie believes she is as bad as her friend. Indeed, there is a destructive side to Lizzie, even in her old age, a nastiness that rises to the surface as she surveys the young folk surrounding her in the city’s Meadows: ‘I feel like pulling the wires out their ears, feel like grabbing hold of their sloppy jeans, chopping off the excess cloth and tossing it to Yoyo for chews.’
Where this unprovoked rage stems from is unclear, but Lizzie’s bitterness suggests she is a thwarted individual, burdened by the experiences of her past. Unlike Marlene, however, Lizzie chastises herself for her less noble actions. She refers to herself as ‘a selfish beast’ and admonishes herself in a shocking fashion: ‘Bitch, I scourge myself, bloody bitch. How can you be so heartless?’ It is alarming and yet strangely thrilling to witness an old lady, a figure endlessly caricatured as dotty and benign, acting in such an unconventional and vivid manner. It is as though Lizzie has been infected by her friend, and Lizzie’s husband certainly seems to believe in the toxic effect that Marlene can have on others: ‘She’s poison, believe me.’
Lizzie’s husband Alan raises another important issue explored by Claire, namely the social position of women throughout this period. Alan is of a decidedly old-school mode of thinking, and treats his wife with a dismissiveness bordering on disdain: ‘Even now I can see his hand swat me away like a fly, Into the kitchen, woman, I’m waiting for my tea, then reach for the Scotsman or the tumbler of whisky on the coffee table.’ Alan takes a biblical stance on how women should be treated and what their role in society should be: ‘he held forth on how a wife was decreed to be the helpmate and support of her husband — made from his very own rib, after all …’
It is for this reason that he so detests Marlene; she does not conform to his idea of a moral woman, so far is she from his ideal vision of loving wife and mother. She is unfaithful to her husband, a sexual tease of the first order, a heavy drinker, and a negligent mother. This link between women and morality — the idea that women should be kind, nurturing and self-sacrificing above all else — is broken by Marlene in a way that is simultaneously deplorable and exhilarating. Her husband and children suffer terribly, which is unforgivable, yet Marlene bursts from the restrictive mould imposed by Alan and his ilk, something which, if not quite deserving of admiration, is nonetheless deeply satisfying to read.
Regi Claire tackles these weighty topics with sensitivity and nuance, deftly weaving them through a narrative which time-trips between numerous decades without being reductive. There are moments when the quality of her writing is truly stunning, whether it is the comical image of a group of old women hobbling over a yard and sweeping the ground with their flap of skirts, or an elderly Lizzie listening to rock music and thinking of WWII, the boom of the drums intermingling with the boom of anti-aircraft fire, ‘The sounds of destruction visited upon the living.’ Claire’s characterisation is subtle and precise, whether she is describing Marlene’s husband consumed with regret for not following his career as a research scientist, or Lizzie having never held a grown woman’s hand until she holds Rachel’s, or Marlene, for all her flaws, living life to the absolute heights and depths, raging in the throes of death.
This is a novel full of the pits and peaks of life, of humour and pathos, of joyful light and nightmarish darkness, and the crisp, clean, razor-sharp style of Claire’s writing cuts to the heart of a story that will linger in the reader’s imagination for long after the final, dazzling passage ends.
Jacqueline Thompson Creative Writing PhD student The University of Edinburgh J.Thompsonfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Waiting by Regi Claire is published by Word Power Books, 2012.