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A battlefield or the deep peace of the double bed? A poignant and compulsive novel of the fascinating tangle of marriage…
Fanny Savage has always been the dutiful wife. Married to Will, a politician with big ambitions, her life is a whirlwind of public engagements. Bound by loyalty to the party, she is required to look good and remain silent. But Fanny is no fool. She’s well aware that the world outside her privileged home is one that seethes with despair, danger, division and lack of faith. she knows how fragile happiness can be. After twenty years of marriage and self-sacrifice, she begins to question her own concepts of fulfilment.
Read An Extract
On our twentieth wedding anniversary, Will and I promised each other to be normal and, to this end, Will carried me off to the theatre and ordered champagne, kissed me lovingly and proposed the toast: to married life.
The play was Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and the production one that had excited attention. Although he was aching with tiredness, Will sat very still and upright in the seat, not even relaxing when the lights went dim. An upright back was part of the training he had imposed on himself: never to let down the guard in public. Although I am better than I used to be, I am still laggardly in that department. It is so tempting to slump, to hitch up the skirt and to laugh when the sense of the ridiculous is tickled – and there was much in our life that was ridiculous. Politicians, ambassadors, constituents, coffee mornings, chicken suppers, state occasions… a wonderful, colourful caboodle replete with the ambitious and the innocent, the failures and the successes.
Of necessity, Will laughed with circumspection – so much so that, once, I accused him of losing the ability through lack of use. There was only a tiny hint of a smile on his lips when he explained to me in detail that just one small error of attention could undo years of work.
I sneaked a look at him from under eyelashes which still stung from that morning’s regular date with the beauty salon. Dyed eyelashes were important because, when I do laugh, my eyes have a habit of watering. More than once in the early days, Mannochie, Will’s watchful and faithful political agent, had been forced to come up to me at some do or other in the constituency and whisper discreetly, ‘Train tracks, Mrs S.’ which meant my mascara had smudged. There was no option but to whisk myself off to the nearest mirror for a quick repair job. Increasingly, I burn inside at the daily reminder of one’s physical imperfections – the evidences of slide which are recorded by the mirror. It is such a bore having to resort to such stratagems, but body maintenance is a must, particularly when a girl is… especially when a woman is forty, plus a tiny bit more.
Dressed in pale, shimmery blue, Nora made her entrance onto the stage and her husband asked anxiously, ‘What’s happened to my little songbird?’
Will reached over for my hand, the left one which bore his wedding ring and the modest ruby which we had chosen together but which I had grown to dislike. The ruby was small because, newly engaged and glowing with love and the prospect of shared happiness and mutual harmony, I had not wished for Will to spend too much money on me. Hindsight is a great thing, and I have come to the conclusion that modesty is wasted when it comes to jewellery.
The touch of his hand was unfamiliar, strange almost, but I had grown used to that too and it was not significant. Beneath the unfamiliarity, Will and I were connected by our years of marriage. That was indisputable.
At the end of the play, still dressed in her pale blue, Nora declared; ‘I don’t believe in miracles any longer.’ The sound of the front door opening and closing as she left the house was made to sound like a prison gate clanging shut.
‘Fanny darling, I’m begging a favour. I know, I know, I owe you more than I can count. But just say yes, please.’
It was the following day and the ministerial car had picked us up from our mansion block flat in Westminster in order to drive us to the funeral in his constituency of Stanwinton.
I reached for my notebook. ‘Do I need this?’
Will snapped his armrest to attention. ‘You sound very formal. Are you alright?’
I could have replied, ‘ I feel as though I have been stretched as thin as possible and, now, I’m almost transparent. Stop and look through me and you will see my heart fluttering and labouring with the strain.’ Instead, well-trained in the art of preserving appearances, I replied: ‘I’m fine.’
The car stopped at traffic lights. I glanced out of the window at a poster that depicted a bride in white with a long, misty veil through which shone a pair of diamond earring studs. The caption read: Eternity.
When I married Will, I had no idea of how the little evasions and dishonesties shore up the everyday. Our partnership was to have been a transparent stream into which we would both gaze without difficulty and draw nourishment. I had no idea that casting my net into that sparkling water would yield…not the plump, pink-fleshed truth but a shoal of tiny white lies and, occasionally, a sharp-fanged black one.
The car accelerated away from the lights and I said, ‘Will, what did you want to ask me?’
Will looked uncomfortable. ‘You couldn’t sit in on the next two Saturday surgeries, could you? You do it so brilliantly.’
Naturally, the excuse was the ministerial diary which ranked above everything else. All I was required to do in surgery was listen to small histories of disquiet and everyday injustice – hospital negligence, an intolerable neighbour, a wrong gas bill – and report back. Very often, it was a question of contacting the right people. They were at the top of the pyramid and Will had made it his business to know plenty of those.
‘Will you, Fanny?’
That was that. While Parliament sat, Will lived in London during the week . When Chloe, our daughter, had been younger it had been weeks sometimes before I joined him but now that Chloe was eighteen, I went to London regularly. The Savage dinner parties were considered something of a talking-point, which I put down to the good wine. In the old days, Will travelled down to Stanwinton every weekend to nurse the constituency and his family, in that order. Now he was a Minister, his visits were less predictable: if he had a micro-squeak of spare time it vanished into the red boxes.
Confident and assured in his formal clothes, Will smiled at me. ‘Thank you so much.’ It was his official voice.
‘I’m not one of your constituents,’ I informed him. ‘I’m your wife.’
Will did one of his lightning changes when he stepped out of the politician’s mould into the person he really was. ‘Thank God,’ he said.
I used to dream of a big, generous, blowsy household where children rustled and muttered in the bedrooms – two, three, even four. And, every night, I would go round and count them up, like nestlings. This is Millie, I would say, smoothing fair tangles away from her face. This is Arthur, removing the thumb from his mouth. And this…this one is Jamie, the terror.’
But it had not happened that way. After Chloe there were no more babies. My body pulled and strained to obey my longings, but it could not do what I asked of it. They haunt me, my non-children. Those warm, sleeping, rosy bodies, the children-who-never-were. Sometimes, I listen out for them playing under the eaves of my ugly house.
‘I don’t mind,’ Will said to me once. ‘We have Chloe, that is enough. We look after her. I look after you. You have to look after me, Fanny. Be content. Please.’
‘Don’t you mind at all?’
He touched my cheek. ‘I mind for you. I mind anything that hurts you.’
Yet, my household was full and we had been happy. First Chloe was born, and I was catapulted into the terror and mystery and exultation of a love that would never die. Then Meg came to live with us: Sacha, too, after his sixteenth birthday. The au pairs came and went; the party workers slipped in and out; each leaving a ghostly imprint on the atmosphere, their rustles and mutters dissolving into the general murmur of life.
Shafts of wit and wisdom that lift the novel above the commonplace.
Visceral and on the mark... ladies welcome your midlife crises with open arms.
Buchan writes beautifully, depicting Fanny's dilemma with wit and warmth, and neatly anatomising the comprimises and complexities of both domestic and private life.
Elizabeth Buchan soon will be attending special 'in her honour' conventions thronged with middle-aged women who revere her as their literary goddess.
Dallas Morning News
Buchan again celebrates a middle-aged woman's use of guile and smartness to score subtle points and victories in taking back her life from a demanding husband... another winner.
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Compelling, compassionate, and aglow with moment of laugh-or-cry humour.