Tuesday 21 June 2011

King Lear revisited

The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff by Margaret Forster that I listened to last week was the most annoying of books with not a single likeable character, only the nice scottish accent of the reader kept me listening, and the hope that Maudie would get a bit of a comeuppance at some point.

Maudie, a very smug, self-satisfied and self-sacrificing elderly woman, decides to take herself off to go and spend four months with each of her three estranged children, in the style of King Lear, to decide which of them will provide a home for her in her dotage. The first daughter lives a neat unassuming life with her husband and only son. You would think that they would be well suited with the same neurotic cleaning routines but having been separated for 15 years they have nothing to talk about and no bond of affection. The second daughter has six children and lives in a squalid farm cottage and tends to spend her time drinking tea and admiring nature. Maudie is horrified to have produced a daughter who is so lacking on domestic talents and sets about sorting out her life, an influence that the daughter resists by being utterly oblivious to her mother's disapproval. She departs in despair and hope to stay with the son, who writes devoted letters but has been living a nomadic lifestyle, alone and self-contained. His minimalist existence in a reclaimed shed is so alien to her and she similarly find she has no point of contact with him.

What was interesting was the portrait of a person who's life was so narrow that they could not even imagine anyone living in any other way, with any other set of priorities than those she felt were important; she sets about scrubbing and whitening her daughter's doorstep and while with the son cannot conceive that people might need to wear different clothes in a Mediterranean climate than in her native Glasgow. And she was so completely unchanged by her experiences. Instead of setting out in a sense of adventure to get to know her children she sets out with a preconceived idea of who her children are, and when they don't live up to it she just withdraws from any real communication with them. She makes no concessions to them, though to be fair none of the children make any concessions to her either, carrying on with their own lives and just taking her presence for granted or ignoring her. It was kind of sad really. Poor Maudie does not have a dutiful daughter who loved her in spite of her behaviour. There was no dramatic transformation, and thankfully no violent eye gouging scenes, and Maudie goes home, deciding that she likes her independence and having her own routine and the comforting atmosphere of her own home. Much as the children were not likeable either I kept wanting her to see that there was more to life than a shiny kitchen sink, but I was disappointed.

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