Monday, 30 March 2009

Sylvia Brownrigg: Morality Tale (2008)

Edition: Picador, 2008

If someone divorces their spouse in order to get together with you, then you are expected to be happy about it. But one of the problems with divorce is that the old relationship is going to be a part of your new life, likely source of bitterness that could poison every aspect of being together, supposedly the big bonus to the change. The nameless narrator of Brownrigg's short novel Morality Tale is in that position, as a second wife and stepmother. Her life and her marriage are not what she expected them to be; her husband has changed, stressed and irritable, ground down by ceaseless demands from his ex-wife. Then she meets a man who seems to be a kindred spirit, the new representative of the company which supplies envelopes to the stationery store where she works in San Francisco.

Marriages are complicated things, where outsiders don't know enough to understand the dynamics properly while the insiders are too close, often unable to see the wood for the trees. It is not surprising that unhappy marriages have been a staple of literature at least as far back as the ancient Greeks. - Agammemnon and Clytemnestra, Jason and Medea, or even Zeus and Hera. (And I will refrain from quoting Tolstoy.) Morality Tale is firmly in the tradition of novels analysing problems in a relationship, with the twist that it is the previous relationship which is causing the strain. The novel could be described as one which is about the relationship between two relationships - and potentially a third, and the problems in her marriage lead the narrator to consider starting again with another man. Although she doesn't make the connection, the descriptions she gives makes it clear that the narrator thinks that Richard is like her husband when they first met, which shows something about her, or her taste in men, which she doesn't even appear to realise - a clever touch.

In Brownrigg's earlier novels, the protagonists have been intellectuals: a philosopher, a student, and a psychiatrist. The narrator here is a much more normal person, with no university education, working as a shop assistant. Occasionally, this doesn't quite ring true, but generally Brownrigg's portrayal is convincing. In fact, the slight inconsistencies in the narrator's self-portrayal are probably deliberate parts of the author's artistry, suggesting that there is more going on in the story than is apparent in the surface, that the storyteller is not the naive innocent she makes herself out to be. Even so, being narrator strongly loads the dice in her favour: the most sceptical reader will still find themselves blaming her husband for making her unhappy, rather than feeling that she is at fault for starting a romance with another man who calls her his angel. Only on reflection do you start to wonder about the way the husband is portrayed, a combination of neglect and rampant jealousy, as well as the changes after the marriage due to stress. Even those of us who do not work as marriage counselors know that problems in a marriage tend to have faults on both sides; it's one reason why they are such complex relationships. Viewed from a different angle, the narrator has destroyed one marriage - her husband left his former wife when he met her - and now wants to move on to someone else after she realises that the marriage is less than perfect.

There is obviously a reason for naming the novel Morality Tale, but it is not obvious on the surface. Taken literally, it would suggest that the various characters are allegorical virtues and vices, as in the medieval morality plays, and this doesn't seem to happen. There is a parallel between the plot and the usual plots of these plays: in tte plays, the protagonist often meets the vices, who tempt him from the paths of virtue; in the novel, Richard tempts the narrator to leave her marriage. However, the division between virtue and vice is not as clear cut in the novel, particularly given the doubts over the self-knowledge of the narrator. Brownrigg obviously wants the reader to think about what might have caused the problems in the marriage, and I suspect the point is that novels are about people, morality tales about allegorical beings, and the latter are by their nature one dimensional; but that does not prevent morality being discussed through the medium of the novel.

Brownrigg is a writer I really like, and I enjoyed Morality Tale while thinking it the least of her novels so far. Even so, there is a lot more to the novel than the surface might suggest, and I'd rate it at 7/10.

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