Diamond-hard portrait of family life as warfare.
Sometimes it’s a simmering conflict, like Thomas and Tonie Bradshaw experiencing confusion and resentment over their redefined roles as he takes a leave of absence to care for their daughter Alexa when Tonie is promoted from part-time lecturer to full-time head of her university’s English department. Sometimes it’s loud, disorderly combat, prompted by Thomas’ brother Howard perennially augmenting the chaos in his household while wife Claudia wails that all these kids and animals and stuff are keeping her from painting. It can be ugly hand-to-hand maneuvers for advantage, as the men’s father, Charles, refuses to have tea because his wife is late, or forces her to get rid of six boxes containing childhood mementos, which she weepily manipulates Thomas into storing in his much smaller house. Or it can be the detonation of really nasty landmines: “What a waste!” moans Mrs. Swann when daughter Tonie proudly displays new curtains she had made from antique silk. “I’ve got boxes of old pairs I could have given you…all beautifully lined, with proper pelmets.” Only the youngest Bradshaw brother Leo and his wife Susie don’t seem aggressive—and that’s because they’re drunk most of the time, as their young children are well aware. The Swanns and elder Bradshaws are cold, withholding monsters, Claudia is a professional martyr, Howard is jovially clueless, Leo and Susie are drowning in insecurity; Thomas and Tonie, though more substantially characterized, are no more engaging. The plot, such as it is, lurches forward during Thomas’ year at home as he becomes unmoored and Tonie is tempted by infidelity, developments that both play a role in Alexa’s near-fatal bout of meningitis. Somehow it’s no surprise that this dark tale climaxes with the dog dying.
There’s no denying Whitbread Award winner Cusk’s talent and gimlet eye for revealing details, but she used to have more compassion for human frailty than she’s displayed in her recent work (The Last Supper, 2009, etc.).