24/08/2004

Jumping the Queue (by Mary Wesley)

I have very mixed feelings about Mary Wesley's books. She was a very good writer, but her characters and stories tend to have an element of the bizarre in them, and rather more bad language than I am comfortable with. I have enjoyed some of her books, and been less than impressed with others. This particular one is the first one she ever had published.

I did like the opening of 'Jumping the Queue'. Matilda is a rather fussy elderly lady, who has (unusually, we are told) been cleaning her house from top to bottom for the past week. She is watched by her pet gander Gus who is quite disturbed at all the activity.

Evidently Matilda is planning something fairly drastic, since she spends inordinate amounts of energy finishing every fine detail of her cleaning, makes lists of useful numbers for some unknown person who will need them in future, and then has a phone call at cross-purposes with an old friend who calls himself Piers, but whom she calls John.

At the end of the first chapter, events take a less pleasant turn when a man arrives to take Gus away, and puts him in a sack. Not that he's going to be eaten; Gus is on his way to be a goose stud in a large shed full of lady geese. But he clearly doesn't want to be taken away, and it so upsets Matilda that I realised she wasn't simply moving house or going on an extended holiday...

I should have stopped there, really.

It's rather a bizarre book in a way. I couldn't find myself relating to Matilda in the slightest; she seems to be a mass of contradictions who doesn't trust anybody she knows well; yet this is turned upside down a short way into the book when she agrees - for no obvious reason - to shelter a criminal from the police. Not a family member or even a friend, but someone she meets quite by chance.

So, I wondered, is the book meant to be lighthearted satire? At times it does seem that way. The situations are so unrealistic, at least in the world I inhabit, that I thought the book could not be taken seriously. Yet it was well-written, on the whole. It never got boring, and while Matilda was quite outside my experience of humanity, the other characters who were gradually introduced did seem believable and fairly well-rounded.

But the plot isn't pleasant. There are several quite disturbing aspects of it. Not horror or suspense, and nothing particularly gory, but the kind of thing that left a rather bad taste in my mouth, and made me wonder why on earth the author hadn't written it differently. I thought the ending rather disheartening too. I wondered what the point was. I wished I hadn't bothered.
The Times, in the blurb on the back, claims that this book is 'A virtuoso performance of guileful plotting, deft characterization and malicious wit'. No doubt they know what they're talking about. Perhaps my problem is that I don't much like warped and sick humour; however those that do might enjoy this book.

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