Edith and Oliver by Michelle Forbes (pbk)

Reviewed by Annabel

Somehow, I managed to miss Belfast author Forbes’s debut, Ghost Moth, set during the early years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which received excellent reviews. Having now read and very much enjoyed her second novel, I should remedy that and search out a copy.

For Edith and Oliver, Forbes has moved back in time to the world of the Edwardian music hall, and after a flash-forward prologue, the story begins with a memorable morning after the night before scene.

Oliver Fleck wakes up half-dressed in the kitchen at the theatre with a pounding head and a bloody molar tooth in his hand. A young woman is sprawled asleep on top of Oliver’s clothes with his blue cravat tied around her thigh.

He makes tea and goes to wake her up and reclaim his clothes:

“Hello…em…how are you?” he asks.
The woman eventually lifts her head and with bleary eyes stares at his mouth as though wondering what it is.
“How am I…or…who am I? she replies, her voice croaking. …
… He looked at her face. Blood is crusted around her mouth, a ring of stale ale visible on her upper lip. She has the beginnings of a black eye….
“…I think I’ve removed one of your molars.” He lifts the tooth from the table and shows it to her.
The woman looks puzzled. “Did I askh you? I musht have askhed you. That tooth wash giving me sho much bother.”
Oliver meekly hands it back to her. They both stare at it in her palm. There is an embarrassed silence. …
“And come to think of it – who are you?” Oliver says.
“I’m Edith.” The woman meekly reaches out her hand to him.

It’s fair to say that it was probably love at first sight for Oliver and Edith, but this will only be confirmed later when Oliver finds that she is the replacement pianist accompanying the theatre bill. The matinee is a disaster, but by the evening after a rehearsal, and with everyone feeling better, Oliver and Edith work together with perfect timing – he has to concede, ‘She is raising his game.’

Oliver is an ambitious young illusionist and hypnotist from Belfast. He’s extremely keen to get promoted up the theatre bill and wants to end up having his own one-man show. But there’s so much competition – the American The Great Deneto is packing them in, ‘Deneto stands on that stage as though he is about to have sex with every member of the audience,’ Oliver’s agent tells him. Oliver asks, nearly begs, his agent to make him the headline act next season, and then promote his one-man show:

“You’ve the talent to be a headline act, the talent to have your own show – there’s no doubt about that, Oliver. No doubt about that at all. But it’s not a question of talent.” He throws his napkin on the table. “Do you really want to know the reson why that’ll never happen?” He sits back in his chair. “The problem is Oliver, you’re homespun. You’re too fucking Irish.”

Oliver refuses to accept his agent’s verdict. He is determined, obsessed, by putting on his own one-man show, and he can’t help incubating his jealousy of less-skilled magicians who are making it. But it’s the early 1900s, and cinema is beginning to make inroads into traditional theatre audiences too.

He’d married Edith, and soon saddled with baby twins from that first night, Oliver is forced to go where the work is, leaving Edith at home. He is always on the road, so it is inevitable that as the years pass their relationship will suffer. We hear about Oliver’s troubled childhood – with a disciplinarian father, the tragedy of his mother’s death and sibling rivalry with his brother Edwin, who is now a successful lawyer and judge, another thing which eats away at Oliver’s self-esteem. His mental health issues gradually resurface as he gets more desperate to succeed, only to fall further. Poor Edith and the children, Archie and Agna, suffer terribly. That’s not to say that they don’t have some good years together. In 1907, they’re now living in Huddersfield and Bertie, the son of their neighbours, has become the twins’ godfather. The good times don’t last however, and war will intervene. Oliver’s stage persona comes across as one of those illusionists that you’re in awe of, mysterious and slightly scary, using qualities inherited from his father perhaps. It’s not until after the war that Oliver comes up with an illusion for his one-man show that no-one has done before. In his obsessed state of mind, he doesn’t see how risky the whole thing is.

Forbes captures the itinerant life of the entertainer, the back-stage camaraderie and rivalries between performers, and the tawdry business of making a living in the theatre wonderfully well, not to mention moving from one set of digs to another each season. This was such a sad story, so evocative of the hardships this little family faced to survive in a world which is increasingly hostile to them. Edith and the twins were easy to love, Oliver less so, his descent into his own personal hell was hard to read. It was beautifully written and was always engaging, but this is not a happy story. It’s a brave author that avoids an unnecessarily happy ending.

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Michelle Forbes, Edith and Oliver (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2017). 978-1474604697, 400pp., paperback.

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