Penguin/Fig Tree, €16.99;Kindle, €9.09.
Review: Sue Leonard
Mutton starts with a long list of things that Clara Hutt has started doing because of her age. Things like making sounds when she sits down or bends, sounds like oof, or wooaarrgh! Also listed are her two- and three-day hangovers, her new passion for tea, and for nature. Then there’s her propensity for forgetting names, and minding about manners.
There’s lots there to identify with, when your forties are just a memory; but Clara Hutt is 46. Surely that’s too young to start displaying the characteristics of the grumpy old woman? I’d hoped to challenge author India Knight on this one. But, though I’d been promised an internet interview, the answers to my questions never materialised.
Mutton is India Knight’s fourth novel, and her third to feature Clara Hutt. She has said her novels contain more than an element of autobiography; like Clara, Knight is a single mum with two ex husbands; like Clara she has an enormous extended family. And like Clara, Knight is a journalist who holds extremely strong opinions. When Clara is having a rant about, say, yummy mummies, it can read exactly like one of Knight’s Sunday Times columns. I found that journalistic voice irritating in Knight’s last novel, Comfort and Joy, but it makes better sense in this one. That’s because the theme, how women should age, dominates the book. It all starts when Clara walks past a batch of builders, and instead of giving her the once dreaded wolf whistle, they call her mam, and treat her with respect. Has she really lost all her sex appeal?
Then Gaby, her once plain and fat friend arrives to stay from America. Looking sensational, she’s clearly undergone a lot of ‘work’. Seeming happy, and full of energy, Gaby hooks up with a toy-boy, and urges Clara to follow her example. Clara is persuaded to try a little Botox, but is cosmetic surgery the way to go?
Clara had thought ageing with dignity was the answer, but it all seems complicated. Waiting for her Botox, Clara sees a celebrity who always proclaims, loudly, that her beauty has had no artificial help. Meeting another celeb, and one whose once legendary good looks have evaporated, she finds herself tempted to pass on the surgeon’s phone number. What is the answer?
And back to being Mutton. This is a label all middle-aged women, surely, wish to avoid, but how do you dress without being thought either too raunchy or too dowdy? Or should you be like Clara’s friend Annie, who, defiantly overweight, embraces her sexual side and doesn’t care that she’s mutton personified?
The book doesn’t come to any firm conclusions. But we learn, through Gaby, how exhausting staying ‘young’ is; and Clara muses on what could happen if one became addicted to various procedures.
“My greatest fear ... is dementia, but now I have a new one: dementia when you’re 70 but look 50.”
Around all this philosophising, Knight builds a picture of Clara’s family life. And it’s an engaging one.
Add to this a couple of love stories, and it makes for a light, but satisfying read.
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