The Woman Who Went
To Bed For A Year
By Sue Townsend,
Michael Joseph, Rs 499
Thirty years ago, Sue Townsend gave the world the secret diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13¾, in which the acne-prone cult phenomenon wrote of his growing sexuality, complained about his pet dog and pined for Pandora Braithwaite. For the latter, he penned such pithy lines as “Pandora!/ I adore ya./ I implore ye/ Don’t ignore me.” and “I am but young/ I am but small/ (with cratered skin)/ Yet! Hear my call.” Earlier this year, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ was republished. And now, Townsend’s new comic novel too is out, in which she, in her characteristic light hand, has created a heroine who does what many of us would dearly love to do when we are besieged by life’s troubles and want no more of them.
Eva Beaver goes to bed — and decides to stay there for a year. This, after she has seen her mathematical genius twins, Brianne and Brian Junior, off to Leeds University, and has deliberately spilt tomato soup all over a sofa she had painstakingly embroidered. And like Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, she does not furnish anybody with any reason for slowly withdrawing from the world. She just tells her husband, Brian, that she needs to think; she says, “I haven’t used my brain for so long the poor thing is huddled in a corner waiting to be fed.” And this thinking she will do in bed; no more having to “make breakfast for anyone, yell at anyone else to get up... clean the oven or wipe various surfaces... shove a brush down various shitty toilets or... pick up things from downstairs that were upstairs and bring them down or pick up things from upstairs that were downstairs”, among other things on an exhaustive list of chores she would have to do every day. Oh, and Eva’s withdrawal from the world includes trips to the loo — she had hoped, at first, that the people who love her would agree to dispose of her waste in large freezer bags.
But then, a mother and a wife isn’t permitted to just merrily not be at her family’s beck and call. The mildly outrageous manner in which Eva decides to drastically rethink the last 50 years of her life faces stiff resistance. The adulterous Brian is gobsmacked; who will keep checking up on the twins — whose genius and asocial behaviour eventually turn them into a threat to global security — or cook his meals? Never mind that he’s been cheating on Eva for eight years with Titania, a fellow astronomer with a penchant for using SMS lingo while having sex. So Eva is faced with disbelief, impotent rage and helpnessness, as well as a growing crowd outside her door that believes she is an angel on earth, and a “lapsed Rastafarian”, Alexander, who falls in love with her.
Eva stays inert in her white bed, dealing with hunger — Brain regularly forgets to feed her — and her inner demons. But Townsend’s story, while full of her characteristic wit, is far from being static and is deeply discomfiting. Eva’s decision not to move sparks off activity and agitation around her and her white bed, in a room which she gets Alexander to paint white. She begins as a 50-year-old housewife who is tired of being taken for granted and worked to the bone, but somewhere along the way, Townsend lets the gloom beneath her wit show itself. Then you realize that at the heart of the book is the story of a life spent unhappily. Townsend — who is nearly blind now — is remarkably perceptive even in her depiction of buffoons like Brian. Like Shakespeare’s Puck, she recognizes human folly and delights in it, but treats it with compassion. This compassion has been at the core of her writing ever since Adrian Mole happened. Townsend’s Mole would have been middle-aged by now, like Eva. He would probably have recognized some of the sorrow and barminess of her story as being parts of his own life too at this stage.