A seething, hollowed-out, soon-to-be-divorced actor is obsessed by his dead mother’s fairy tales.
Laura Perry, the mother of narrator Benedick Hunter, was an American in 1960s London and a children’s book illustrator of some repute when she hanged herself after her handsome columnist husband left her for another woman. Benedick, nearly 40, mostly unemployed, and suspended by an emotional thread after his own novelist wife left him (with their two small children) to live with her posh publisher, stumbles again upon his mother’s North of Nowhere stories with their eerie, haunting illustrations. In his leisurely state of self-loathing and despair, he sets out to unearth the true story behind her suicide by following the shadowy lead of her grim fairy tales of innocent, virtuous girls lured into the dark wood (Craig acknowledges her debt to the work of Ellen Handler Spitz, Alison Lurie, and Marina Warner). His reckless quest takes him and his son Cosmo to the wilderness of the States, to New York City, and to the original woods of “the Carolinas,” where Craig can let fly her criticisms of American obesity, automatic cars, and fast food. While Benedick’s children are scene-stealers, the younger women in his life, including his wife and the predatory singles who call him relentlessly, are shredded maliciously. Benedick’s tempestuous moods are effectively, even amusingly, delineated, and despite his swampy self-pity (his successful father is “a wicked old bastard who has never loved me”), the reader ends up cheering for him when he meets his charming southern cousin Rose, a dead-ringer for his mother. Disastrously, Benedick learns that he suffers from manic-depression, but his bad moods, with medication, vanish like magic—rendering most disappointing the requisite hospital ending of this neatly written emotional saga.
Britisher Craig’s US debut is a perspicacious relationship drama, with some nicely researched academic touches for the literary set.