Book review: Fay Weldon deploys her inimitably indiscreet voice for the 34th time

The British writer likes to let the reader into the secrets of her creations, in this case a doomed middle-class family in the years before the second world war

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 April, 2016, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 April, 2016, 6:00pm

Before the War

by Fay Weldon

Head of Zeus

2.5/5 stars

Fans will immediately fall in with that familiar voice speaking directly and chummily to the reader in Fay Weldon’s 34th novel, Before the War.

It reminds you throughout that this is only a book. Weldon takes huge pleasure in the god-like aspects of authorship, and likes to let the reader in on the secrets of her creation. It’s a technique she has honed over many years, and she is completely at ease with it. Near the beginning, she gives a nod to Kurt Vonnegut, another writer who liked to accompany his readers in this way.

“So it goes,” she quotes appreciatively, after a wry series of massive spoilers: “She is standing in her shapeless clothes … with no idea at all of what I have in store for her. I will give her an easy death. It’s the least I can do. She will drift away painlessly from loss of blood giving birth to twin daughters a day after their apparently safe delivery. Ergometrine was not isolated until 1935.”

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This is 1922 and we are introduced to Vivvie, who is reminiscent of the anti-heroine of Weldon’s 1983 novel Life and Loves of a She-Devil but much nicer. Six foot tall and “unattractive”, she once broke a chair by sitting on it while attending her father’s investiture at Buckingham Palace. She buys a husband, Sherwyn Sexton, an impoverished young writer working at her father’s publishing company. Sherwyn, whose best friend is Mungo, spends a lot of time comparing penis sizes and frequently takes refuge in the persona of the charismatic Rafe Delgano, a character in a book he is writing. Vivvie and Sherwyn’s marriage is sexless but hugely comforting and comfortable; yet doom hangs over it in the form of Vivvie’s dreadful mother, Adela, a small, pretty woman, manipulative and hard as nails. Adela is also a nymphomaniac. As well as her doting old husband, Sir Jeremy, she is sleeping with both Sherwyn and Mungo, among others.

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The machinations carry on into the next generation. Twin girls are born, of uncertain parentage, one lovely, one “unfortunate”. Weldon has great fun as bad fairy Fay at the christening, showering the blessings of beauty and daintiness on good little Stella and the curse of plainness and lumpiness on grumpy Mallory. So continues the familiar pattern. She does, however, grant Mallory the ability to talk like this at the age of eight: “You have the looks but I have the brain. People look at you and try and please you. They look at me and try and forget me. Everyone thinks you’re nice because you tell lies to save their feelings. People think I’m nasty because I want to know the truth. You know how to get round people but I know how things work.”

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Perhaps these characters aren’t meant to seem that real. Looking down on her cast from amused heights, Weldon punctures their pretensions and double standards with piquant observations, and keeps a detached eye on the power politics of their relationships; but she also caricatures them, and I think she would be a better writer if she could put aside the obsession with how attractive or otherwise a woman is. This has been a major theme throughout her career, but it limits her range. The Weldon universe is an unreal place where pretty girls never suffer, or if they do it’s their own fault.

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