MILK AND HONEY by Elizabeth Jolley


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Jolley's previous novels (Miss Peabody's Inheritance, Mr. Scobie's Riddle, both 1984; Foxybaby, 1985) combined an acidic humor with a merciless overview of hapless oddballs undercutting themselves and one another. Now, a faintly gothicky tale about a young man who from childhood on was milked and bilked by a super-loving, weird household of expatriate Viennese--who will manage to cripple him for life. The story begins in the present when miserable Jacob, a failed house-to-house salesman, with a silent wife and odd child, remembers his life in the home of the Heimbachs: ""Uncle"" Leopold, teacher of music; Tante Rosa (""the Grenadier""), cool and abrupt; motherly Tante Heloise; and Louise, Leopold's daugther, four years younger than Jacob. Then there's the enormous boy with the porky face, Waldemer. The child Jacob had been sent to board with the Heimbachs while attending school and learning music. ""We shall all,"" said Leopold to Father, ""take part in his life."" They do, indeed--cosseting, molding, flattering. And when Jacob, at Leopold's urging, punches Waldemer to stop his teasing and manages to kill him, everyone assures him it's Not His Fault--Waldemer had a bad heart. As the years pass, Jacob becomes one with the hermit community and joins in good-deed visits with Leopold to the mental hospital, where patients (like the now-gone Waldemer) are tied down. Leopold and the rest meanwhile assure Jacob that he's a genius of the cello. Then, enter Madge, a violinist, middle-aged, a cheeky piece tired to death of her humble husband. The sex between young Jacob and Madge is ravenous, liberating. And Jacob, who's about to come into a rich legacy, is Madge-drunk. But the Heimbachs handily outmaneuver Jacob, who, like the bee drowning in his own honey, hasn't a chance. Horror builds upon horror as Jacob learns something's going on that's even nastier than that someone in the attic; and before the desiccated Jacob is ripped from the cocoon, there'll be a murder and Tante Heloise will spill all. Although this grim little tale sags a bit with Jacob's gray narration, which, except for the welcome vulgarity of Madge, never varies in tone, it has the elements of a rare black-comedy about a tribe of bloodsuckers who settle on a victim to ""draw substance in order to preserve themselves,

Pub Date: May 20th, 1986
Publisher: Persea