Monday, 14 June 2010
Chalcot Crescent by Fay Weldon
The alternate reality in question is a world very much like ours, set a few years in the future, but almost unrecognisable from our own mostly due to a complete economic and social breakdown caused by the financial crisis of 2009! The consumerist society is well and truly defunct; the days of plenty are over. The country is ruled by a National Utility Government (NUG), and supplies that we take for granted today are in short supply, such as coffee, tea, fresh meat, water and electricity. There is also an emphasis on growing your own vegetables, with the gardens of many terraces being converted to communal vegetable plots. The full picture of the state the country is in is drip fed to us through the course of the novel, as Frances relates her life story, mainly from her home in Chalcot Crescent.
In this world where everything has degenerated Frances starts telling us her story whilst she is sat on the stairs avoiding the bailiffs who are knocking on her door, to repossess her house and confiscate her property. Frances is an author of numerous successful novels, but in the current climate, the money for publishing has vanished so she is now living a subsistence level existence, along with virtually everybody else. Her grandson, Amos is sat with her, and he is determined to extricate her, or at least her property from this mess.
Frances herself is the main narrator, although not the main focus of this book. She is telling us the events, and they are obviously filtered through her perspective, but it is the stories of her family that are important. She tells us a lot about her past, her relationships both with men, and with her sister Fay. Frances is not altogether a very pleasant character, although unfalteringly honest about what she has done in her life. I was going to say, the mistakes she made, but she doesn’t see them as mistakes, she s quite straightforward about the things she did. Her acceptance of the new regime is a little odd though, as she seems to just want to let it be, when in the good times, she was a voracious campaigner, and witnessed all sorts of injustices.
As to whether I liked this book, I’m not sure. There was a story running through, mainly concerning Amos and her other grandchildren, and how involved they were in Redpeace and an attempt to overthrow NUG, and this as aspect of the book felt a bit flat for me. The story itself never seemed to kick off properly, and was all wrapped up very quickly, and I personally thought rather unsatisfactorily. However, I did enjoy reading about this imagined world where everything had gone so horribly wrong, and because it pulled so much from events that have happened recently or are happening now, it was an amusing satire on government and use of power. The NUG had slogans for everything, and food that cold not be grown was provided by the state, but in a nationalised form (as in WWII), such as national bread, coffee, and National Meat Loaf, marketed as suitable for vegetarians! The reason for this is bizarre, and a bit creepy but I won’t give that away.
I think the thing that kept me reading most though was the complete unreliability of Frances. She is telling this story, but at various points she can’t remember something that others say has happened. She also spends a lot of time imagining what may be happening if it outside her area of experience, and at one point she is unsure herself whether what she has just narrated has actually happened, or if her writers brain has imagined it. That was the most fascinating aspect of this book for me, especially as at the very end, it is made clear what we are actually reading is a second draft, after NUG approval, which throws the whole validity issue into disarray. And obviously, this is all imaginary anyway, as Frances didn’t exist in the first place, so is this Fay Weldon’s take on an alternative life for herself!