The Pumpkin Eater – Penelope Mortimer

Sorry to disappear suddenly – I went off to Somerset for an Easter weekend (the most dramatic moment: Sherpa getting stuck on the roof; eventually I pulled her through the bathroom window, with Our Vicar on a ladder and Our Vicar’s Wife & Colin holding a tarpaulin like a firefighters’ blanket).  Now I’m back in Oxford, and eyeing up the growing pile of books I’ve got waiting to review for you.  First up – one of those pesky Penelopes.

I had intended to read Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, as part of my vague project to read more of my unread Persephones, but it clashed with another title on my Century of Books – so instead I picked up The Pumpkin Eater (1962) in this beautiful NYRB Classics edition.  But, oh, aren’t they always beautiful?

I thought the image on the front was simply abstract, until I realised that it was a pram full of faces – Downhill in a Pram by Susan Bower, to be precise.  And that is apt for the recurring theme of The Pumpkin Eater (and possibly my favourite thing about the book) – the number of children the unnamed narrator has.  Cleverly, Mortimer gives us a heroine who has a lot of children – but by never specifying quite how many, we get the impression that they are numbered in their dozens.  People are always shocked by how many there are; her various husbands (she’s not short of them, but at least the number is given: four) baulk at them, and only one name is vouchsafed to us: Dinah.

The novel starts with the narrator in a therapy session.  These recur throughout the novel, and are very amusing (in a dark way), mostly because of the lack of progress that is made in them.  The therapist follows the narrator around in circles, expecting her to feel something about her husbands and children – but she is steadfastly stony-faced.

“And then?” he asked coldly.

“Then?  Well, then I married the Major, but since he was going overseas we went back to live with my parents.  I had Dinah there.  Of course he was dead by then.”

“And did that upset you?”

“Yes.  Yes, I suppose it did.  Naturally.  It must have done.”

He slumped in his chair.  He seemed tired out.  I said, “Look, need we go on with this?  I find it tremendously boring, and it’s not what I’m thinking about at all.  I just don’t think about those husbands except…”

“Except when?”

“I never think about them.”
She has something of a Barbara Comyns heroine about her – that undaunted matter-of-factness – but Mortimer does reveal some of her emotional fragility as the novel progresses, and Jake the current husband is knocked from whatever pedestal her might have briefly mounted.  “One’s past grows to a point where it is longer than one’s future, and then it can become too great a burden,” as she says in the narrative, towards the end.

And then there is the enormous glass tower Jack is building for them in the middle of the countryside.  It’s a curious part of the novel, and I don’t know how we are supposed to interpret it – as Freud would? As Ibsen would in The Master Builder? Or is a tower sometimes just a tower?

But, as with many of my favourite novels, the important feature is voice.  Mortimer does this brilliantly.  We are immersed in the worldview and experience of the unnamed narrator, even without for a moment believing that she could plausibly exist in the way she is presented.  Her upsets and anxieties are certainly real, but the character is more than that – the centrepiece of a black comedy with only a toe in reality.  And, designed that way, it is a glorious novel.