FOUL MATTER by Joan Aiken


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Aiken at her most serious, with neither fluff nor suspense--in a gloomy, drifty, faintly gothic modern-novel (adultery, death, soul-searching) that occasionally sends up flares of charm and poignancy. The largely unsatisfactory narrator/heroine: Clytie Churchill, 35, a talented British achiever (novelist, cookbook-writer, catering tycoon) who recalls her busy, death-haunted love life during an all-night rap session with a French doctor at a chateau. (Don't ask how Clytie wound up there: it's a foolishly contrived--and ineffectual--setup.) Clytie's first great love was journalist Dan, whom she married soon after the suicide of his first wife, death-obsessed poet Ingrid; but, hours after the wedding, Dan committed suicide too, perhaps taking his baby son along on the doomed boat-ride. (Clytie thinks the son may still be alive somewhere.) Then came simultaneous affairs with the husbands of Clytie's two best friends: tweedy architect Hugh, husband of maternal Elly; and sallow publisher George, husband of career-driven Chris. But, though both liaisons were initially dandy (with Elly and Chris cheerfully, unconvincingly, in the know), both men soon died--Hugh of lung cancer, George of an unspecified illness that made him mad, violent, then helpless. (In one of the book's best moments, his wife and mistress alternate reading Pride and Prejudice to the dying man.) And Clytie's most recent major affair has also been shadowed with death: five years back she loved local (Sussex) lawyer Anthony, whose pregnant wife had been killed in a motorcycle accident outside Clytie's house; but Anthony, a Catholic, angrily departed when he found out about Clytie's adulterous past. So now, unsurprisingly, Clytie is rather sour on love--and preoccupied with mortality. ("Goodbye, Anthony. Goodbye, my last love.") She is dubious about responding to the French doc's serious-minded courtship. And, after returning home to find her house burned to the ground (by Dan's crazy mother), she plans to open a pub in partnership with beautiful ex-prostitute Teddy. . . while Anthony becomes a monk. ("There's still a lot to do. . . . Promises to keep. Meals to cook. Friends to cherish.") Unfortunately, Clytie is a half-formed, unappealing Modern Woman--a shaky mix of feminism, enlightened promiscuity, sentimentality, and existential angst. The plotting, too, with its parade of violent demises and its halfhearted glimmers of mystery, is a rickety frame for serious thoughts on love and death. Still, for every creaky or pretentious moment, there's also a touching or disarming one (the supporting cast, the food-talk, the Sussex vignettes); and though Aiken fans won't find the usual pleasures here, they may be intermittently engaged by this uneven, ambitious blend of the morbid and the whimsical.
Pub Date: March 1st, 1983
ISBN: 0385183712
Page count: 264pp
Publisher: Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1983


by Joan Aiken
by Joan Aiken