I picked up Susan Hill’s A Change for the Better from the shelves of the Little Library, a literary free-for-all thanks to which I’ve stumbled across all manner of elderly, fusty little books. The sorts of books that are faded to a jaundiced hue, their pages seeking respite from the glue of their bindings, their text cramped and tiny, set, in variably in Linotype Pilgrim.
It’s perhaps fitting that I chanced upon this sagging, menopausal book, giving it an opportunity to embark on an excursion away from its familiar surroundings for a while, because the volume deals in large part with the encroaching invisibility and narrowing of opportunity that comes with middle-age. That, and the tyranny of inescapable familial relationships–it’s probably unsurprising that overall it’s quite an intimidating read.
When I say intimidating, I don’t mean that it’s a big or a grand volume, but rather that because reading it is comparable to being stuck in a room alone with some hideous older relation for whom you, despite yourself, hold a sort of grudging respect. It’s not an enjoyable read at all (with the possible exception of the very end, where my inner schadenfreudian had a good old workout), but it’s biting and wicked and dreadfully incisive.
The novel follows three main threads, which are set up in such a way that they are thematically interlinked and contrastable, and to devastating effect. Probably most integral is the mother-daughter duo Deirdre Fount and Mrs Oddicott, who work together in stiflingly close quarters, their resentment towards each other and their disdain for each other’s life choices barely contained. Mrs Oddicott is a cruel bully who channels her own sense of failure and loneliness into endless passive-aggressive bullying, cutting the already cowed Deirdre down whenever possible in order to keep her at close quarters. Deirdre, meanwhile, is bit by bit attempting to break away from her mother’s clutches. She fears (and fair enough!) becoming her mother, and has begun seeking to improve her already ailing relationship with her young son James–who is on the cusp of adolescence and is himself trying to forge his own identity.
Things are further complicated by the reappearance of Deirdre’s womanising ex-husband and his vague efforts to establish some sort of relationship with James, and also by the appearance of the Carpenters, an embattled husband and wife team whose overtures towards Deirdre only further poison things between Deirdre and her mother. The dynamics between the Carpenters are not unlike those between Deirdre and Mrs Oddicott: snideness, intransigence and thanklessness colour their every interaction.
Everyone in this book, with the possible exception of James’s music teacher, is brutal beyond belief, and often knowingly so. The pettiness and mean-spiritedness is breathtaking, but Hill’s ability to get into her characters’ minds is such that we can almost forgive them their derelictions. I think it’s that there are so many layers created here, and beneath the strychnine-laced buttercream icing of these individuals is a pervasive sense of loneliness, desperation and fear.
It’s the classic balancing of the concepts of positive and negative face: wanting to be appreciated and shown attention while also wanting to be left to one’s own devices. But it’s the way that the characters in this book go about this that’s so cruel and startling. They’re manipulative and petty to a grimace-inducing degree, and yet the others in their relationship binaries are unable to escape their orbit.
(I’m presently searching through the book for an illustrative quote, but my blood’s boiling at every interaction!)
Here’s a choice snippet between Deirdre and her mother, after Deirdre has returned from going up the street to post a letter:
“Ah, there is James’s flute case – so he has come home?’
Mrs Oddicott lifted the lid of a saucepan and peered inside. “He is gone out,” she said shortly.
“Out? Out where? He did not tell me of any plan he had to go out again.”
“And is that not only to be expected? He is taking after you in that respect, surely?”
“Mother, do not be ridiculous. Where has he gone?”
“Now I suppose I am to be blamed for giving permission. But what else was I supposed to do? You were not here, and I made it very clear that I was no longer thought to be responsible for him, I said all that there was to say on that score. James knows all that has happened.”
This continues over several pages, with Mrs Oddicott slowly circling around her daughter, her tongue a punitive force that makes the cat o’ nine tails look like an appealing option. But it’s not only Mrs Oddicott who punishes Deirdre: broader social forces conspire against her. For me, one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the book was this one, where Deirdre decides to venture out for some personal time:
“Good evening,” Mrs Carmichael,” said Deirdre Fount, walking confidently past, “What a cold evening! So pleasant beside the fire!”
I shall do this again some day, she thought, I have enjoyed my little treat, my rest and my glass of sherry, a quiet time to order my thoughts, it has all done me a great deal of good.
Mrs Carmichael sat reading her library book and waiting for a friend, and when the friend arrived she said at once to her, “Poor Mrs Fount has just been in here, sitting alone over a glass of sherry.”
Poor Deirdre’s efforts to at long last step out from beneath the foul umbra of her mother are constructed entirely differently from the outside, applying to her a narrative that is not at all how she saw the turn of events. It’s a sad look at the degree of agency we really do have over our own lives, and how others can so readily influence the way that we live–whether we are aware of it or not.
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Other books by Susan Hill: