Michael Feeney Callan
Pentheum Press, €12.99
Review: Val Nolan
A writer with a Hennessy Award for short fiction and a clutch of actor biographies under his belt, Michael Feeney Callan’s new novel is something of a Kentish Desperate Housewives. Set along the southern coast of the UK, in a moneyed but empty world of “strategic birdbaths” and “vomit on the veranda”, The Woman and the Rabbit presses “the limits of domestic sham” in a variety of ways.
The novel’s protagonist, Patricia, has just turned 50 and struggles with “a loss of form and rhythm” which she did not anticipate. “These days everything felt inefficient, off-focus,” she says, and so she turns for support — somewhat optimistically — to a ladies’ “phoney-baloney, life-enhancing reading circle”. It is a group all about “the chitchat and getting pissed, a kind of compensatory female version of tribal-rugby afters-bash,” and efforts to intellectualise the proceedings predictably come to nothing.
Beyond Patricia, the group comprises “Elizabeth: callous with ambition. Margaret: unfeeling in trouble-making. Kitty: masterfully hypocritical, in her own eyes invincible in youth. And Angus: poor Angus, least offensive, a woman of middle years, driven, apparently, by the devil in her heart or the hormones between her legs; either way least lousy.” People you will recognise from any small town.
Yet the latest addition to the circle, a woman who enjoys the sponsorship, indeed the fascination, of Patricia, is an outsider. Alva is a former missionary nun who believes “that John Keats, the poet, lives on the moon”. Despite which, the only thing that seems unusual to the others is the fact that she’s black. Moreover, Alva represents a worldview in which friendship and family are interchangeable. Something which could not be further from the life Patricia finds herself living.
Alva’s generous talk and touch contrast heavily with Patricia’s husband David, a venal old don who personifies all of old-school academia’s misogyny with his constant references to “titty” Kitty. The pressure he feels to publish reflect more recent developments in the education sector, however Callan, perhaps recognising how this has been overdone, rarely stresses this latter aspect of the character.
Instead he focuses on interpersonal relationships and how the novel’s cast heaves against each other as Patricia’s search for self-definition comes more and more into focus. Dialogue is a strong point of The Woman and the Rabbit, as is the book’s careful architecture. Both are unsurprising as Callan is a former writer and editor for BBC Drama and so clearly knows his way around the mechanics of plot.
The issues of fidelity and “myopic, omnivorous carnality” which lie at the heart of the novel pivot on the reading circle’s current choice of HG Wells in Love, though Callan never allows this to devolve into a literature seminar. Rather he takes from the book “the abstract idea of loving” and crafts an interrogation of “what love truly is”. Patricia, certainly, is a nexus of all kinds of modern love: a gay son, a daughter pregnant by a man twice her age, an unfaithful husband, and even a burgeoning attraction to the alluring Alva. Sex too is everywhere, from the dance floor of a sweaty, tequila-fuelled nightclub to the deserted, Lawrence-esque laneways of rural England.
Thus, on the surface, The Woman and the Rabbit seems an exploration of eroticism versus exoticism. In its second half it becomes a reflection on what it is to be content, an investigation of its protagonist’s physical and emotional needs. It is a novel about balance and the choices one makes to maintain it.
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