As promised, a review of Mary Cavanagh’s The Crowded Bed today. For those keeping tabs, Blogger appears to have once more changed the format for posting, so we’ll see how this goes…
“Good evening, dear friend. I’m extremely pleased to see you, but I’m sure you’ll understand why I can’t give you my full attention. Joe Fortune is just about to kill his father-in-law, and I’ve no intention of missing this long awaited event.”
So opens The Crowded Bed…
Gosh. From the first sentence I sensed this wouldn’t be an uneventful novel – and, genre-wise, it’s a canny decision by Cavanagh. If it hadn’t been arranged thus, we’d have had a Hamlet-esque tussel over whether or not Joe wanted to kill his father-in-law – and let’s face it, who hasn’t watched Hamlet and thought “to be or not to be, don’t care, just get on with it!”
I digress. The Crowded Bed follows Joe, a Jewish boy and later doctor, from childhood through various relationships and to just after the pivotal moment described. Like many recent novels I’ve read, the narrative jumps about a bit, so ‘the present’ is shown parallel to various sections of the past – though, like those novels too, it’s not confusing. I found Joe a fairly repugnant character, but I think that’s ok – he has manifold sins under his belt, and more or less his only redeeming trait is a deep love for his son. And an abiding love for Anna.
She’s the other lass. Liked her. Despite her name, she’s not Jewish – she’s more like Botticelli’s Venus, as shown on the cover. My favourite sections of this novel were the opening chapters, when the childhoods of Joe and Anna were depicted alongside each other, and thus contrasted. Where Joe has indulgent and proud parents, Anna had a vicious father and a passive mother. And a twin brother, a theme popping up in quite a few recent reads. Reading their childhoods in this comparative way is so revealing about the characters and the way they interrelate.
The path isn’t smooth for Joe and Anna. That crowded bed gets pretty crowded as the novel progresses, and I’ll keep schtum over whether or not they manage to kick everyone else out but, suffice to say, the shocks keep coming to the very end. Cavanagh has written a novel which is both gentle and vicious, warm and unsettling. It’s hard to like many of the characters, but that doesn’t stop being compelled to find out more – and the rollercoaster they go through is dramatic but believable. Certainly not comfort reading (though someone recently described The Kite Runner as that, so it takes all sorts) but is a very engaging and perpetually surprising novel. Oh, and it features Oxford, which is always exciting!