Malarky by Anakana Schofield
4th Oct 2013
The best sort of literature does something in theory simple, but in practice very complicated: it takes everyday problems, feelings and happenings and elevates them to tragedy, comedy and poetry fit for the Gods. Middle-class girl secretly fancies rich, grumpy landowner. Frustrated French housewife has an affair. Poor boy loves rich girl.
Malarky (published by Oneworld, out now) is that sort of novel. Its premise – an ordinary farmer’s wife who’s just found out her son Jimmy is gay and that her husband is having an affair – is almost off-puttingly, soap-opera simple, but it’s written so skilfully, funnily, respectfully and beautifully that you’ll be disarmed, frantically treading water in unseen and unexpected depths.
Schofield’s best trick is to lull you into a false sense of security with a few dozen pages of daft, farcical comedy... before tripping you up with a small, quiet sentence which breaks your heartAnakana Schofield’s début took her twelve years to write, something which can be readily understood after reading. It is incredibly multi-layered, flickering back-and-forth in time, tense and dialect and covering the war in Afghanistan, cattle markets, gay culture and shopping malls all through the eyes of mentally disintegrating protagonist Our Woman, whose experience of recent tragedies has forced her to re-examine her life.
Schofield’s best trick is to lull you into a false sense of security with a few dozen pages of daft, farcical comedy – the book opens with Our Woman’s counsellor suggesting she gets rid of uncontrollable visions of “naked men. At each other all the time, all day long” by “scrubbing the kitchen floor very vigorously” – before tripping you up with a small, quiet sentence which breaks your heart.
A long section where Our Woman roams a town centre getting arsey with teenagers is probably one of the best pieces of writing about grief you’ll have read in a while.
Another where she plays mean tricks on her cheating husband only to be reminded, as he cries out in surprise to find a teapot empty, that “he must have issued a cry the first time he pushed himself into [his mistress]”, kicks you right in your soft spot.
Anakana Schofield wrote recently for the Guardian about the puzzle of being interviewed about her own habits and personalities during the promotion of her novel, and if she’s not fully aware of how well she writes characters it’s easy to understand why she’s so mystified.
Our Woman, her husband, their son Jimmy and even her infrequently-appearing friend Bina are all wonderfully distinct, three-dimensional beings; their desires, triumphs and failures simply but thoroughly plotted.
Our Woman herself receives the most attention of course: her breakdown, which has already started when the novel begins, is reminiscent of Holden Caulfield – albeit a Holden Caulfield who’s elderly, female and not a whiny little tosser.
She’s one of the most disarmingly likeable characters you’ll encounter this year, and watching her haltingly attempt to make sense of the world at the same time as have it slip away from her is what, more than anything else, makes Malarky not just an absolute delight to read, but something which sticks with you well after you’ve finished reading.