CHALCOT CRESCENT by Fay Weldon

Book Quote:

“I will be sorry to leave this life, as soon I must. It is so full of wonder, as well as horror. A surprise around every corner and the pace is hotting up.”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage  (OCT 15, 2010)

Two things about British novelist Fay Weldon: she will always be controversial and she will always be relevant. Known primarily as an author of female-centered books, Weldon –who just turned 79, by the way, worked in advertising at one point in her career, and she also wrote the screenplay for the 1980 version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In 1998, Weldon, called a feminist novelist for decades, came under fire for her comments on the subject of rape. In 2001 Weldon once again became the subject of controversy with her novel The Bulgari Connection when it was revealed that she’d been paid 18,000 pounds to quote the jeweler at least 12 times. How’s that for product placement? After some initial waffling came Weldon’s great get stuffed response: “Well they never give me the Booker Prize anyway.”

Chalcot Crescent--Weldon’s 29th novel (her 30th if you count Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen) is a bit of a change of pace. Weldon’s characters are predominantly females struggling to survive in a male dominated society, and while these women should, of course band together to form a cohesive, formidable alliance, they more often than not devolve into rivalry and squabbling as they battle over men–the so-called spoils. In Chalcot Crescent, Weldon’s world of 2013 offers a tableau of a slightly different sort. Yes men still rule, but it’s the faceless sinister monolithic government–the true enemy–and the ultimate patriarchal society–in charge of a world that’s gone horribly and believably awry. Is this science fiction? Perhaps–although I think the world of Chalcot Crescent is too close to the truth for that. Instead it’s the sort of Weldon-dabbling we see in the futuristic The Cloning of Joanna May (1989) and the alternative realities of Mantrapped (2004).

Weldon tells the reader that this book is the story of her lost sister “set in an alternative universe that mirrors our own.” With Weldon’s characteristic humour, the novel’s protagonist, Frances now aged 80, is a once-successful, now-penniless writer living in Chalcot Crescent while her loser sister, Fay–a writer of cookbooks has hightailed it to back to New Zealand. Holed up in her Chalcot Crescent home, surrounded by foreclosures, Frances hides from the bailiffs who are about to turf her out of her house and presumably onto the street. Trapped inside her home, she describes a world that’s gone to hell:

“Then came the Labour Government of 1997 and the Consumer Decade–as it is now called–and by 2007 the house next door to me sold for £1.85 million. Then came the Shock of 2008, the Crunch of 2009-11–when house prices plummeted and still no-one was buying–then the brief recovery of 2012, when at least properties began to change hands again, though our friendly European neighbours became less friendly, the US embraced protectionism and the rest of the world had no choice but to follow. And then came the Bite, which is now, and with it a coalition and thoroughly dirigiste government which keeps its motives and actions very much to itself. And though a few major figures in the financial world went to prison, the nomenklatura still ride the middle lanes, have their mortgages paid for them and do very well, thank you. The rest of us are presumably moving to the outskirts: fifty years on and we are back to where we began. I reckon I had the best of it.”

With the economy in a permanent state of emergency, the NUG (National Unity Government) is running the country. Rules, regulations, and rationing control everything–from an intermittent water supply to CCTV. Everyone is supposed to eat a rather suspicious manufactured substance called National Meat Loaf, vegetarianism is ridiculed, and home grown-produce is taxed by Neighbourhood Watch programmes. People who’ve lost their homes in the economic downturn disappear and are relocated to the nether regions of the “outskirts.”

Frances goes back and forth in her descriptions of the past and the present, and as she types her story into the computer (hoping to sell a book if there’s enough paper), she plays with the idea that some of what she’s writing is fiction. She details her major relationships and the lives of her rather disappointing children as she rode the wave of economic affluence to its disappointing conclusion. With numerous marriages, second spouses, lovers and stepchildren, it’s all very complicated. For Weldon fans, reading Chalcot Crescent is very much a pathway through the author’s life and work–the incidents, the loves and the hardships; it’s all here, or at least the parts that Weldon wants us to know about are here, and all treated with her characteristic humour. But apart from the witty and wicked exploration of Frances’s past, there’s also Frances’s present; Amos, Frances’s favourite grandson, a member of the radical breakaway group Redpeace is part of a guerilla composed of members of Frances’s family. While Redpeace plots direct action against the government, Frances is relegated to dotty-old-lady status by her monkey-wrenching grandchildren.

Chalcot Crescent may read like a science-fiction fantasy, and depending just how you feel about the state of the world, reading the novel may be an uncomfortable experience at times. Weldon’s world is not so far removed from reality. Most of us have seen the gutting of the American and British economies, and the subsequent beginnings of a new peasant class. The novel also dabbles with notions of agent provocateurs and Redpeace–a supposedly radical group that’s allowed to exist in plain sight. Again there’s that idea of Weldon’s relevance. Even as I confess to a certain disappointment in the novel’s ending, I suspect that Weldon is much cannier than her critics acknowledge. I was rather hoping for a Shrapnel Academy style ending, but instead as Guy Debord would say, even the most radical gesture will eventually be Recuperated.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 2 readers
PUBLISHER: Europa Editions; Reprint edition (September 28, 2010)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? Not Yet
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia Page on Fay Weldon

British Council biography of Fay Weldon

EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Contemporary women authors:

Margaret Atwood

Joyce Carol Oates

Bibliography:

Nonfiction:


October 15, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Alternate History, Humorous, New Zealand, Satire, Speculative (Beyond Reality), y Award Winning Author

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