Friday, May 23, 2008

The White Family by Maggie Gee

This came up in one of the discussion threads on here, so I decided to give it a read. It's an unusual book in that it is both subtle and too obvious at once. It is the story of a family, the Whites, who possess and display, to varying degrees, racist views. It is wholly unsubtle because the characters are, frankly, almost cartoonish in the simplicity of their depictions. It is subtle because, in the character of the father, there is someone who is fascinating and real.

The father is, or so he appears, an old-fashioned John Bull 'Britain for the Whites' bigot. He is also violent, having thumped most of his family, including his daughter at some stage. He is, of course, revered in the community, where he is a park keeper. Recognise the stereotype? Pub (or in this case, Park) darling, home bastard. But there is more here, as we'll see later.

His elder son has reacted against his father’s bigoted violence and boorishness by becoming a newspaper vox-pop columnist. He fulminates on social issues but, later, confesses he doesn’t much care about what he writes. It's just fodder. Recognise him? The shallow journalist, of course, a stock of stage, screen and print.

Then the younger son. He is straight out of a Richard Allen novel, a skinheaded paki- and darkie-hating racist who also hates women for good measure and pretty much everyone else, including himself. That he turns out to have latent homosexual leanings is almost to be expected. We’ve all seen My Beautiful Launderette, after all.

The mother is a pacific, Tennyson-loving stereotype-bender, the stupid little woman who isn't at all stupid. But she is docile. She lives in terror of her rule-making and fear-inducing husband. She doesn't stick up for her children when they are being terrorised. Instead, she finds refuge with Alfred, Lord T. But she loves her man.

The daughter/sister, of course, coming from a family of bigots, marries a man who is as black as black can be. He dies, unfortunately, but she then takes up with a West Indian for unsuitable partner number two, an act which adds racist fuel to the incendiary brother number two: he'd almost forgiven her once, but not twice.

Sister's unsuitable partner number two has a younger brother who is studying James Baldwin for his doctorate. He is also gay, but of course the West Indian community refuse to acknowledge gayness as a black 'problem', so he can't discuss it with anyone. He ends up being murdered by racist brother number two. (In terms of theme, why did he deserve to die? Because he was afraid of coming out? That's either an uncomfortable thematic message or a messed up thematic plot turn.)

There's an introverted writer-librarian who has problems with women but ends up shagging two of them (including the black-loving daughter) on consecutive nights. So he's maybe not that nice. Or maybe he is because he's quite thoughtful about it, and even makes one of them come. But he also thought that the gay black brother was violent, possibly criminal, because of the material he was borrowing from the library, when of course we know he was only studying Baldwin. So another racist, then.

All this is straight out of Crash, wouldn’t you say? (And that's another story, a movie in this case, that tries far, far too hard and ends up being way too pat. For god's sake, loose ends are never tied up so completely in real life.) Everyone is shown to have their own hang-ups. We do in real life, of course, but it feels forced here. Nobody is proved to be completely blameless, the good guys are shown to have their weaknesses. And the bastards are gradually given some humanity. Or at least, in this case, the father is.

However, he is the one character in the novel who actually works. We see increasing complexity in his character where, with some of the other characters, we see plot devices happening to them. As he lies in his hospital bed, dying, he does grow more real. He rejects the John Bull his daughter bought him – 'he never truly existed,' he says. He speaks to the black nurse as a person,not an object. He comes to understand that he has ruled his family by tyranny, comes to see the way his children regarded him. He doesn't change, though. People don't. He just comes to understand. This is real life. It is painful. As a reader, you feel something, because he is feeling something. But ultimately, unfortunately, he does change, and this doesn't work for me at all. He makes a final gesture and reports his killer son to the police. We are then left with a mawkish scene at the end where he perishes in his beloved park with his beloved wife at his side. So happyish families at the end. A life's journey comes to its conclusion.

For me, there's just too much going on in this novel. The daughter is desperate for children, we learn. (Why? Why in this novel? Sure, the novel's about connectedness and belonging, but first and foremost it appears to be about racism (or maybe domestic violence), so the child subplot feels an isshoo too far.) Then we learn she had a child when she was much younger, and it was adopted. (Sounds like it should be in another novel to me.) Then at the end she has unplanned twins (father uncertain, either the black partner or the white librarian, and the unidentical twins, one dusky, one white, don't resolve it). Again, why? Thematically, what does that actually say? It's confused and confusing for no good reason that I can see, other than to provide a feelgood ending of sorts. And right at the end the first, adopted, daughter contacts her so, at the last, she is fulfilled. Good for her. But what a trite way to deal with a serious issue, thrown in at the last like this as an 'aah' ending.

And the other characters? The older brother? He tries to come to terms with his anger. That's about it. The mother? Loves her husband, keeps quoting Tennyson. Doesn't actually change at all. She's a wasted opportunity, really. She could have been very good. The younger son? Sadly, he is a mess of cliches who never feels remotely real. But he's racist, he's sexist, he's homophobic, he's gay. He also appears to be undiagnosed autistic (a super-facility with numbers). He feels out of place and out of time and wholly unwanted and unloved. And obviously he's inherited his father's inability to control his anger. I mean, how many bloody issues do you need to try to engage in one pathetic character?

And this is why I found this such an infuriating book. At times it was so in your face 'this book is about isshoos, it’s about racism innit?' that it became laughable. Trite isn't the word for it. You simply groan when you read drivel like: ‘muttering mumbo-jumbo at him' and 'Indian people smelled of funny food.' That is straight out of a fifth form composition. Granted, the novel goes on to explore racism in more depth, but a cliche is still a cliche no matter how much you may subvert it later on.

But overall there is a depth to this novel. It does explore useful territory, and it does come to some useful conclusions. It doesn't (always) go for the easy options. In the father, Maggie Gee does create a character who is infested with real concerns and prejudices and beliefs. He isn't a saint or a sinner, he is a man who has done terrible things, sometimes for honest reasons, and has sometimes done good things for bad reasons. There is, based around him, within the 416 pages on offer here, a very, very good novel.

Unfortunately, within those 416 pages there is also a great deal of a very bad novel. In structural terms it feels like a bad first draft. Too much of it is too obvious. Too much is trite, simplistic, convenient. This is a great pity because it has the effect of obscuring the genuinely revelatory.

The rewrite could be superb.

1 comment:

Vanessa G said...

Glad you enjoyed meeting Alfred!

I suppose I saw the death in the park as utterly meaningless, destructive for no purpose whatsoever. And that's the message of the issue explored, here.

But the death was always going to happen (or something like it) because of the circumstances piling up.

I found that my reactions to Dirk were complex. yes, he is 'just' a bundle of sparks. yes, he is the archetypal 'bash-everything if it moves and isn't white like us', and yes, he should have elicited the same response as a stereotype.

but he didn't. Even though I abhor all he stands for, I felt for the guy. Gee made me react both against him and in his support..., It came to a head in the killing scene.

It would have to happen in Alfred's beloved park, wouldnt it. And that's partly why Alfred turns him in, not because of what he did. I think. Dirk has violated Alfred's land. So he doesn't actually recant totally on his deathbed at all.

Really interesting to get your take on this one. Glad it wasn't a total waste of time!