Prospective brides and grooms are advised not to pick up a copy of
Clare Boylan's exquisitely bleak novel, unless they want to be scared
single for life. Marriage as trap, prison, confinement, an endless compromise
with no relief in sight: Beloved Stranger is enough to drive
one screaming from the altar.
A million wedding albums contain the elements of the story Boylan tells
in her sixth novel. Dick and Lily Butler have been married for a half-century,
living in the same house in the same old suburb of Dublin. "Wedded bliss"
isn't quite the term for what they share—more like "acceptance
and friendship," Lily thinks, "for all that the other had had to put
up with. Breaking in took a very long time. That was mostly what life
While "breaking in" sounds more appropriate to horse-training than
to marriage, it's tempting, early on, to admire Lily's pragmatism. We've
been told, by countless shrinks and well-meaning friends, that marriage
is no everlasting bed of roses. It must be worked at, and Lily has worked
hard. Her genius—if one can call it genius—is to have made
accommodation her life's work. At first blush, this appears to be the
hard-won wisdom of a woman who has learned over decades how to keep
her husband's rough edges from rubbing her raw. "You couldn't be half-married,"
Lily tells herself, "couldn't spit out the bits you didn't like." She
and Dick drift along on "the circularities of married conversation.
Little mantras of reassurance that keep the steering steady; foot just
touching the clutch." In the marriage bed, she's always "locked up safely
for the night … his old bones clamped around her."
Lily's own words—"breaking in," "locked up"—give her away.
All is not right in this union. Has it ever been? One clue: the couple's
only daughter, Ruth, has reached her early forties appalled at the very
idea of binding herself to any man for life. "When young women entered
their houses as wives," Ruth believes, "they never came out again, except
with a pram or for the shopping. Girls who made so much noise together
in their teens, once married fell silent like birds in the depths of
winter…. Ruth thought most houses gave off darkness rather than
light, and a faint odour of captivity, like cages in a zoo."
It's no shock to learn that thoroughly modern Ruth doesn't enjoy an
easy relationship with the folks. She fled the parental cage as soon
as she could, leaving behind a gift of sorts: a feminist library (Simone
de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer). Over the years, her mother quietly explores
these strange messages from another world, where gender relations don't
follow the strict rules Lily obeys. To Boylan's credit, this reading
doesn't set off the expected consciousness-raising. Intrigued but not
radicalized, Lily carries on; she soothes Dick by telling him that they're
just "female" books—no real threats to the balance she works so
hard to keep between them.
It's Dick who throws things off-kilter. He begins to suffer episodes
of manic-delusional paranoia. He imagines intruders in the night; Lily
doesn't dare ask where he got the shotgun with which he "defends" the
house. In an obvious but effective metaphoric gesture he goes around
opening all the windows, although it's cold as the grave outside: "'This
place stinks!' He ran about urgently, as if there were evil spirits
to be given exit. 'I must have air. I cannot breathe.'" He writes large
checks and then claims that unscrupulous people have been swindling
Dick's no charmer at the sanest of times; one feels the deck has been
stacked against him. See what women like Lily endure? Boylan seems to
be saying. What—other than the author's desire to dramatize an
extreme case of marital claustrophobia—brought these two mismatched
souls together in the first place? Dick at least has some piss and vinegar
left in him; his mad scenes are among the book's best. Once-reassuring
rituals, the protocols of domestic life, warp into alien rites. In one
hair-raising manic episode, Dick holds Lily hostage with the shotgun,
rubbing the muzzle against her cheek while he takes his afternoon tea.
In another metaphoric turn of events, Dick is soon trussed up in the
hospital, medicated and tamed, much as Lily has been contained by her
marriage to him. A psychiatrist tells her:
What's happening now began, I think, a long time ago. Windows were
left open inside his head and strange things blew in. Over the years,
with great patience, you managed to get those windows shut, but somehow
they've blown open again.
Nice words, but they don't answer the question of what a lifelong spouse
can or will do when her sentence is unexpectedly commuted. Boylan seems
more interested, throughout, in what Lily didn't do, didn't become,
didn't express. "As you get older," Lily tells her daughter, "your dreams
fade. It's your frailties that become absorbing. That's the thing you
can share in a marriage."
Ruth doesn't agree, and her own choices bring her a shade closer to
fulfillment. But Lily's comment gets at the novel's heart-chilling suggestion:
it doesn't really matter whether one is happy or unhappy, whether (or
whom) one marries and how well. The world can absorb bucketfuls of personal
misery. Every choice is an accommodation, and one accommodation may
be as good as the next. That's a hell of a message to send. Does Boylan
really mean to send it? One suspects that it's a philosophical side
effect of her decision to mismatch Dick and Lily from the start. We
already know that people suffer, often without good reason; even a novel
about unhappy people should contain more surprising news.
The surprise in Beloved Stranger—and it comes as a real
and rare joy—is Boylan's writing. It soaks into these parched
lives like rain into dry moss, as revitalizing as Lily and Dick's marriage
is dessicating. Lovely images appear, ghostlike, at the oddest times
She drank the tea looking out the window. She liked autumn, the soft
light and clean air, the lush rhubarb and ruby varnish that tinted
leaves before they withered. She watched a leaf come down, a frivolous
descent, as if it was embarking, not dying. It did not simply drop
off the tree but detached itself fastidiously and then glided into
freefall, a flimsy scrap of gold against the wide, cold sky, like
a teenager leaving home.
On a hospital visit to Dick, Lily "could see resentment growing like
a hedge of brambles around him." Ruth looks in on her parents napping
and is "oddly shocked to find them wrapped around one another, stiff
and secretive as silver spoons." If Boylan can't find a fresh marital
story to tell, at least she has discovered new ways of describing an
old one: stuck together till the bitter end. •
Jennifer Howard is a contributing editor of the Washington
Post Book World. Her short fiction has appeared in the Virginia
Quarterly Review and Blue Moon Review. Her reviews of Ronan
Silber, and Gloria
Emerson have also appeared in the Review.