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One From the Archive: ‘Have the Men Had Enough?’ by Margaret Forster *****

First published in 2018.

Margaret Forster’s 1989 novel, Have the Men Had Enough?, is an incredibly astute familial saga with an ageing matriarch, Grandma, as its central focus.  At the outset of the novel, Grandma is clearly beginning to lose her focus, believing that her father and brothers will be coming home shortly, and that she needs to cook their dinner.

Have the Men Had Enough? is told from two perspectives, those of Grandma’s daughter-9780099455646in-law, Jenny McKay, and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Hannah.  Of Grandma’s diagnosis, the family are told ‘the long-term memory remains after the short-term has gone.  Grandma cannot remember what she had for dinner an hour ago but she can remember every detail of what she ate on the train journeys to the Highlands in the 1920s.  And it makes her happy.  It does not seem to worry her in the least that she cannot remember her husband’s first name or the colour of his eyes or what he liked and did not like.  He remains in her memory as the subject of a few unflattering anecdotes and, if she had to sum him up, she is content to say he was “a man’s man”.’  Despite these two perspectives, and their sometimes conflicting views, Grandma is always the focus of the narrative; we learn about the other characters largely with regard to their actions toward, and feelings about, her.

It was fascinating, and often saddening, to see such a story unfold from the perspective of a family who have different beliefs as to what would be the best course of action for Grandma’s ongoing care.  Her daughter Bridget, a nurse, lives next door, and is determined to keep caring for her at home for as long as she can manage.  One of her sons, Stuart, keeps away, saying that he does not want the hassle of involvement.  Her son Charlie, Jenny’s husband, funds Grandma’s flat and nursing expenses.  Whilst they live nearby, and Jenny does a lot to help from time to time, both find the process exhausting.  Jenny expresses her fears about caring for Grandma: ‘I want to act now, to protect us all.  And yes, I am afraid, afraid of what it will do to us all if we keep Grandma in our midst to the bitter end.’  Granddaughter Hannah is incredibly observant, continually questioning what would be best for Grandma; at first, she asks, ‘Haven’t the women had enough too?’, before veering back and forth on the idea of Grandma being cared for in their family home, something which her brother Adrian wants dearly.  Hannah is concerned throughout with Grandma’s happiness, and treats her with tenderness and understanding at all times.

Certainly poignant, Have the Men Had Enough? raises a wealth of important questions about ageing, and who will care for us when we reach a stage at which we are no longer able to care for ourselves.  Each of the characters is forced, at points, to reflect upon their opinions of what would be best for themselves and for Grandma.  This thought-provoking reflection makes the novel feel eminently human, and so well balanced; we recognise the discomfort of each of the characters in turn.

Others have written that Have the Men Had Enough? is a difficult book to read, both in terms of prose and content, one which takes time and concentration.  Certainly, Forster’s writing is intelligent, but from the very beginning, I found it immersive.  The story itself was a little draining at times, and one feels terribly for the McKays, in having to make such a difficult decision which will ultimately impact upon and affect them all.  There is a wonderful variation to the novel, given the range of characters, opinions, and voices.

Whilst a devoted fan of Forster’s biography of Daphne du Maurier, and devouring one of her more recent efforts, The Unknown Bridesmaid, a few years ago, I am baffled as to why it has taken me so long to read more of her work.  Forster is an author who has published a wealth of books which appeal to me, and I will certainly try my best to read more of them over the coming months.  I shall conclude this review with a wonderful quote by Hilary Mantel, which sums up my thoughts on the novel: ‘It is close to life in a way we hardly expect a novel to be, and finally very moving.’

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‘Diary of an Ordinary Woman’ by Margaret Forster ****

I absolutely adored Margaret Forster’s Have the Men Had Enough? (review here) when I read it back in 2017, and think that her biography of Daphne du Maurier is superb.  It has been a surprisingly long time since I picked up another of her novels, but I selected the rather chunky Diary of an Ordinary Woman as my next Forster because it sounded splendid.  It sounds, on the face of it, as though it has rather a lot of themes in common with Have the Men Had Enough?, and I was intrigued to compare the two.

Diary of an Ordinary Woman spans an entire century, from the birth of its protagonist in 97800994492871901, to her old age in 1995.  It is presented as the ‘edited’ diary of Millicent King, who takes the decision to keep her journal just before the outbreak of the First World War.  In it, she ‘vividly records the dramas of everyday life in a family touched by war, tragedy, and money troubles.’  Of Forster’s decision to include such a vast time period in her novel, The Guardian writes: ‘Not only is the background of social and political change meticulously accurate… but there is everything one would expect from a well-kept diary.  This is fiction, yet it is true.’

The ‘diary’ begins with an introduction written by an overseer, an anonymous author who has been asked to read Millicent’s many diaries by her great-niece by marriage, and assess their literary worth.  The author comments: ‘I pointed out that it is quite dangerous letting a writer loose in a field of very personal material – I might run amok and trample on sensitive areas.’  However, upon reading the earlier diaries, they note: ‘The writing was fluent and lively, and seemed driven by some sort of inner energy which, though the content was mundane enough, gave it a sense of drama…  If she could write with such vigour at 13, how would she write at 23, 33, right up to 93?’

Millicent shows her diaries with some satisfaction: ‘Inside [a cupboard], there were three shelves packed with hardback exercise books, most of them red but some black.  She stood back and surveyed them, telling me that whenever she looked at them like this, she felt her life must, against all the evidence, have amounted to something after all.’  The introduction of this anonymous author-cum-editor ends as follows: ‘… there was nothing ordinary about this woman.  Indeed, I now wonder if there is any such thing as an ordinary life at all.’

To continue with this idea of Millicent’s diaries being edited, entries are sometimes interspersed with comments from the anonymous author, which give more background to the social climate, or which explain why several months – or sometimes years – have been omitted from the ‘edited diary’.  From the beginning, one really gets a feel for Millicent’s quite prickly character.  As a young lady, she certainly feels hard done by, particularly with regard to her position in the family: ‘I am most unfortunately placed in this family, coming after Matilda and before the twins and Baby.  I am special to nobody, and that is the truth.’  Her humour, which is not always deliberate, comes through too in the earliest entries.  When she stays in Westmorland for a family holiday in 1915, she comments: ‘There is no place or time to read and in any case I must be sparing with what I have to read because there is no hope of getting to a library.  I have made Lorna Doone last for ages and I do not even like it.’

I found Diary of an Ordinary Woman immediately compelling.  Forster has perfected an intelligent but accessible writing style, which seems to give us access to Millicent’s every thought, however dark.  Due to the span of almost the entirety of the twentieth-century, Forster has allowed herself to engross one in the details, creating such depth for Millicent and the changing world in which she lives.  There is little which is remarkable in Millicent’s life, but the very fact that such a huge chunk of it has been recorded by herself, is remarkable.

One is really given a feel for the huge shifts which occurred during the twentieth century, and the impacts which this could, and would, have upon one individual.  Her life unfolds against the century; her childhood lived in the First World War, the role of fascism in Italy where she later works as a teacher, the Mass Observation Project which she takes part in, and the Korean War, amongst others.  In many ways – having a career, deciding not to get married or have children, and even wearing trousers in the early 1930s – Millicent subverts what was expected of a well-bred woman.

The element which I found a little tiresome in this novel is the emphasis placed upon Millicent’s romantic conquests.  Whilst mildly interesting at first, these soon begin to follow the same pattern, and the men whom she falls so wildly for become quite similar figures.  This detracted somewhat from my enjoyment of the novel.  Had this part been more succinct, or less spoken about, I imagine that I may well have given Diary of an Ordinary Woman a five star rating.

Millicent King is a singular woman, but she is also presented as Everywoman here.  Forster makes it clear that Millicent shares a lot of her concerns with women living within the twentieth-century.  Of Forster’s protagonist, the Independent on Sunday stresses the ‘whole-hearted’ belief which we have in Millicent, and the element of heroism within her ‘that George Eliot would recognise.’  Whilst there were some later decisions in which I found myself questioning Millicent’s judgement, I could not help but warm to her.  She feels realistic, particularly for all her foibles and complaints.

In Diary of an Ordinary Woman, Forster has created something quite remarkable.  Whilst in some respects the novel does feel rather long, there is so much within it which both fascinated me, and sustained my interest.  Evidently, to span an entire lifetime, there must be a lot of detail included, and the novel is certainly richer for it.

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‘Have the Men Had Enough?’ by Margaret Forster *****

Margaret Forster’s 1989 novel, Have the Men Had Enough?, is an incredibly astute familial saga with an ageing matriarch, Grandma, as its central focus.  At the outset of the novel, Grandma is clearly beginning to lose her focus, believing that her father and brothers will be coming home shortly, and that she needs to cook their dinner.

Have the Men Had Enough? is told from two perspectives, those of Grandma’s daughter-9780099455646in-law, Jenny McKay, and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Hannah.  Of Grandma’s diagnosis, the family are told ‘the long-term memory remains after the short-term has gone.  Grandma cannot remember what she had for dinner an hour ago but she can remember every detail of what she ate on the train journeys to the Highlands in the 1920s.  And it makes her happy.  It does not seem to worry her in the least that she cannot remember her husband’s first name or the colour of his eyes or what he liked and did not like.  He remains in her memory as the subject of a few unflattering anecdotes and, if she had to sum him up, she is content to say he was “a man’s man”.’  Despite these two perspectives, and their sometimes conflicting views, Grandma is always the focus of the narrative; we learn about the other characters largely with regard to their actions toward, and feelings about, her.

It was fascinating, and often saddening, to see such a story unfold from the perspective of a family who have different beliefs as to what would be the best course of action for Grandma’s ongoing care.  Her daughter Bridget, a nurse, lives next door, and is determined to keep caring for her at home for as long as she can manage.  One of her sons, Stuart, keeps away, saying that he does not want the hassle of involvement.  Her son Charlie, Jenny’s husband, funds Grandma’s flat and nursing expenses.  Whilst they live nearby, and Jenny does a lot to help from time to time, both find the process exhausting.  Jenny expresses her fears about caring for Grandma: ‘I want to act now, to protect us all.  And yes, I am afraid, afraid of what it will do to us all if we keep Grandma in our midst to the bitter end.’  Granddaughter Hannah is incredibly observant, continually questioning what would be best for Grandma; at first, she asks, ‘Haven’t the women had enough too?’, before veering back and forth on the idea of Grandma being cared for in their family home, something which her brother Adrian wants dearly.  Hannah is concerned throughout with Grandma’s happiness, and treats her with tenderness and understanding at all times.

Certainly poignant, Have the Men Had Enough? raises a wealth of important questions about ageing, and who will care for us when we reach a stage at which we are no longer able to care for ourselves.  Each of the characters is forced, at points, to reflect upon their opinions of what would be best for themselves and for Grandma.  This thought-provoking reflection makes the novel feel eminently human, and so well balanced; we recognise the discomfort of each of the characters in turn.

Others have written that Have the Men Had Enough? is a difficult book to read, both in terms of prose and content, one which takes time and concentration.  Certainly, Forster’s writing is intelligent, but from the very beginning, I found it immersive.  The story itself was a little draining at times, and one feels terribly for the McKays, in having to make such a difficult decision which will ultimately impact upon and affect them all.  There is a wonderful variation to the novel, given the range of characters, opinions, and voices.

Whilst a devoted fan of Forster’s biography of Daphne du Maurier, and devouring one of her more recent efforts, The Unknown Bridesmaid, a few years ago, I am baffled as to why it has taken me so long to read more of her work.  Forster is an author who has published a wealth of books which appeal to me, and I will certainly try my best to read more of them over the coming months.  I shall conclude this review with a wonderful quote by Hilary Mantel, which sums up my thoughts on the novel: ‘It is close to life in a way we hardly expect a novel to be, and finally very moving.’

Purchase from The Book Depository

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One From the Archive: ‘The Unknown Bridesmaid’ by Margaret Forster ***

‘The Unknown Bridesmaid’ by Margaret Forster (Vintage)

The Unknown Bridesmaid is the newest novel from prolific author Margaret Forster.  Its premise is intriguing and rather mysterious: ‘Julia was the only person who knew what happened that day.  But she didn’t tell the police.  And then it was too late.  Now, years later, her secret looms large.  Is it really too late?  And if she does tell, can she bear the consequences?’

The novel begins in the present day, in which Julia works as a child psychologist, and goes back in time to her own childhood.  In the first pivotal event, she is asked to be a bridesmaid for her cousin Iris, who is marrying a man named Reginald in Manchester.  Soon afterwards, Reginald is killed in what is thought to be an IRA attack.  Despite her grief, Iris soon gets back on track, finding that she is pregnant with his son, who is known from his birth as Reggie.  Throughout, Julia’s own story is far more interesting than those fragments which we learn about the girls whom she counsels.  Her family dynamic is interestingly portrayed, and the psychological aspect of the book has been well done too.  The novel certainly gains power as it goes on.

Forster writes well throughout, and her prose is successful at building up tension as the novel builds.  The Unknown Bridesmaid does feel like rather a quick read, but this may be solely due to the rather large font within the paperback edition of the book, and its uncomplicated writing.  It is more focused upon its characters than its settings and scenes, so there is little beauty but much intrigue created.  Forster captures both the childish naivety and wisdom of her young characters – and there are many of them – well.  It is interesting to see everything from the perspective of a girl who is still firmly rooted within her childhood, and it allows the reader to piece together the incidents which we believe may have occurred to lead Julia and her family to certain points in their lives.

The third person perspective has been used to good effect in recounting Julia’s story, but it does have a tendency to detach the reader from the story, and renders us more as a casual observer than a confidante who is intrinsically linked to Julia, or to Forster’s other characters.  Julia is not a likeable protagonist, but there is something rather compelling and horribly believable about her.  Through her, Forster demonstrates quite clearly how one single moment can impact upon one’s life forever.  Whilst the majority of the plot is satisfying enough, the ending feels both flat and rushed, which is a real shame.  Still, as far as psychological novels go, The Unknown Bridesmaid certainly deserves to be read by a wide audience.

Purchase from the Book Depository

0

‘The Unknown Bridesmaid’ by Margaret Forster ***

‘The Unknown Bridesmaid’ by Margaret Forster (Vintage)

The Unknown Bridesmaid is the newest novel from prolific author Margaret Forster.  Its premise is intriguing and rather mysterious: ‘Julia was the only person who knew what happened that day.  But she didn’t tell the police.  And then it was too late.  Now, years later, her secret looms large.  Is it really too late?  And if she does tell, can she bear the consequences?’

The novel begins in the present day, in which Julia works as a child psychologist, and goes back in time to her own childhood.  In the first pivotal event, she is asked to be a bridesmaid for her cousin Iris, who is marrying a man named Reginald in Manchester.  Soon afterwards, Reginald is killed in what is thought to be an IRA attack.  Despite her grief, Iris soon gets back on track, finding that she is pregnant with his son, who is known from his birth as Reggie.  Throughout, Julia’s own story is far more interesting than those fragments which we learn about the girls whom she counsels.  Her family dynamic is interestingly portrayed, and the psychological aspect of the book has been well done too.  The novel certainly gains power as it goes on.

Forster writes well throughout, and her prose is successful at building up tension as the novel builds.  The Unknown Bridesmaid does feel like rather a quick read, but this may be solely due to the rather large font within the paperback edition of the book, and its uncomplicated writing.  It is more focused upon its characters than its settings and scenes, so there is little beauty but much intrigue created.  Forster captures both the childish naivety and wisdom of her young characters – and there are many of them – well.  It is interesting to see everything from the perspective of a girl who is still firmly rooted within her childhood, and it allows the reader to piece together the incidents which we believe may have occurred to lead Julia and her family to certain points in their lives.

The third person perspective has been used to good effect in recounting Julia’s story, but it does have a tendency to detach the reader from the story, and renders us more as a casual observer than a confidante who is intrinsically linked to Julia, or to Forster’s other characters.  Julia is not a likeable protagonist, but there is something rather compelling and horribly believable about her.  Through her, Forster demonstrates quite clearly how one single moment can impact upon one’s life forever.  Whilst the majority of the plot is satisfying enough, the ending feels both flat and rushed, which is a real shame.  Still, as far as psychological novels go, The Unknown Bridesmaid certainly deserves to be read by a wide audience.

Purchase from the Book Depository