While Shiny New Books concentrates on the new, we enjoyed giving some of our reviewers room to share previously published – ie: ‘not Shiny New Books’ they were reading this summer – and we’re going to continue that as ‘Reviewer’s Choice’, an occasional feature.
A Day to Remember to Forget by Rosalind Brackenbury
Reviewed by Helen Parry
It’s the late 1960s and Phil and Lucy have just decided to get married; they are still students but have fallen in love with an old farmhouse they intend to buy even if it’s not entirely clear how they’ll pay for it (‘when the loot runs out, I’ll sell books and vegetables,’ says Phil airily). They are on their way to Phil’s childhood home in suburbia, for his mother’s fiftieth birthday. This novel centres on that birthday and on the relationships between the members of Phil’s family, the Ridgelys. It explores the tensions between generations, the frustrations of love and the power of domesticity. By soaking the reader in the thoughts of Lucy, Phil, Phil’s mother Felicity, and Mrs Fletcher, the Ridgelys’ elderly neighbour, Rosalind Brackenbury weaves a striking and acute novel that has stayed with me. Unlike a lot of ‘stream-of-consciousness-type’ novels, it has a physicality, an earthiness to it. The characters are so deeply and solidly imagined that it’s impossible not to believe in them and I catch myself wondering what happened to them all, where is Lucy now aged almost seventy?
Felicity Ridgely is the very definition of house-proud. Her home is spotlessly clean, she works ceaselessly to ensure that her kitchen is ordered and her linen ironed. Why this is so important, she no longer knows. She spends most of her birthday cooking, preparing and clearing up meals for the rest of the family: breakfast, a roast lunch, afternoon tea, supper. Her husband, George, and her sons try to lure her away, to have a drink, to rest, but she refuses. She takes no pleasure in all this housework – in fact, she deeply resents it and plays the martyr constantly. But if it were to be taken away from her, her life would be empty. She has nothing else.
She and George are conventional in their attitudes – pathologically so, in Phil’s eyes. They mistrust Mrs Fletcher, who lives next door in a dark, decaying house: her husband was a conscientious objector and died unhappily. They cannot express their love for their sons. Felicity feels her blunders painfully, but cannot pull herself out of the pattern that elicits them. But their worst crime, according to Phil, is their dishonesty. They lie about the past and Phil’s childhood.
Andrew, Phil’s elder brother, is kinder to them:
‘I see they had to invent it all,’ Andrew said, ‘because they’re so bloody miserable now. Because they can’t stand not having had a happy past to gloat over, so they invent one, they allow themselves to see it all different because otherwise life would be intolerable. […] So don’t take it away from them. Because it’s cruel, and unnecessary. […] Shit, they didn’t even have a chance to find out who they were and where they lived before they were slap-bang in the middle of a bloody war, shooting hell out of a bunch of other kids on the other side of Europe. They didn’t have a chance. They couldn’t say, me first, and this is what I want, and I want to live in a big house in the country and nobody bugging me please.’
Andrew has followed the path laid out by his parents – university, job, marriage, child – but he has adapted it to suit himself and sublimated his resentment. Phil, however, wants none of it, rejects ‘all the rubbish’ of this sort of life, ‘nothing natural or living or real’. Rejection is the only way he believes he can survive.
Phil said, ‘But how can one have a choice, really? Everything’s there before you’re born. All the things other generations have done, in their turn, I suppose, without a choice. And they go on after one’s dead. You can’t change anything. You can only decide not to accept it. You just have to go and do your own thing, as they say, and let the rest get stuffed, if they want to. It’s too late. One doesn’t have time.’
‘Just one life,’ Mrs Fletcher said, not answering him, her eyes blurred now with fatigue. ‘Just a few years. You make choices all the time, of a sort. But who’s to tell you if you were right?’
Yet of course it’s a qualified rejection, because the life he envisages is, like Andrew’s, ultimately only a different version of the same thing. It’s property ownership, marriage and children, just with long hair and cigarettes and swearing. When he and Lucy visit Mrs Fletcher for a glass of sherry, they describe their dreams with great enthusiasm:
‘But a house,’ Lucy plunged in, her thin hands in the air, gesturing around a shape. ‘A house can mean more than just walls, more than just a place. You know? One makes something, expresses something. And sometimes, one just finds the perfect thing, the perfect place, something that’s been sort of waiting for one.’
‘And if one falls in love,’ said Mrs Fletcher, ‘one must act.’
‘Yes! That’s just what happened! It was as if it had been left there for us, just at the right moment. That’s why we have to have it, at whatever risk. Because I do think, don’t you…’ her hands moved again, swiftly, ‘that if one is offered something great one is offered a risk too; and if you can accept the risk, you get the greatness. Oh, dear, I am explaining it badly. But no, this is what happens, if you fall in love with a person, isn’t it? You risk your whole self, you give yourself away – oh, completely – and it’s the most awful risk, but if the person accepts you, then you have the greatness too, oh, and everything.’
Mrs Fletcher, who once also defied convention for the love of a man named Phil, is gently sceptical. And underneath, Lucy is a little sceptical too. Does she really want to marry Phil? (She’s only nineteen.) She imagines the perfect life, but will the house provide that, or will it prove a trap like the one that has caught Felicity? Will her marriage be a union of equals, or will she end up afraid of Phil? At the end of the novel she and Phil drive out at dusk to see the house, and it is surrounded by little fires as the farmers burn the stubble: a potent and ambiguous image.
Lucy and Phil’s dream is essentially static. They will achieve the perfect house, the perfect state. What will happen after they are perfectly married and living in the perfect house? They don’t seem to know, other than that it will be wonderful. Yet, Brackenbury’s novel warns, do not expect romantic love to endure, do not stake all your happiness on it. Do not assume that loving your children will be enough, because you will easily warp and damage that love. ‘You make choices all the time, of a sort. But who’s to tell you if you were right?’
The edition of A Day to Remember to Forget which I read is a new one published by Michael Walmer. It has an excellent introduction by Margaret Drabble, which places it in its context (1971) and discusses its novelty and even shockingness. But it’s worth reading not just as a historical document of a particular socio-cultural shift in British society, between the Boomers and their parents, but because it is a really good novel and a painfully honest description of the limits of family love. In the end, we are all alone.
Helen Parry blogs at a gallimaufry where this review first appeared.
Rosalind Brackenbury, A Day to Remember to Forget (Michael Walmer, 2020). 978-0648690924, 202pp., paperback.
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