I enjoyed Craig’s Life of Idleness, but this novel, which precedes it, was leaps and bounds beyond it in terms of dragging me into its dark wood and making me more interested in what was in the dark than what was lit.
Benedick Hunter is newly divorced from his author-wife and is in such a deep depression that he cannot even face seeing their two children, Cosmo and Flora. The novel begins as Benedick is packing up their London home and he finds a book of fairy tales written by his mother. It falls open and he begins to read and so begins his odyssey to discover who his mother was and why she killed herself when he was six years old, the same age as his son, Cosmo.
No one wants to give him straight answers about his mother, even her friends and certainly not his father, whom he resents and dislikes with the passion usually only a teenager can muster. Benedick blames his father for his mother’s death, as they had divorced that year when Nell, Benedick’s stepmother, entered the picture.
Benedick’s mother-figure is Ruth, with whom he goes to live after leaving the home he had shared with his wife. Ruth is a psychotherapist by trade, but does not push Benedick and allows him to sulk in squalor and only pushes gently when he asks questions.
Ruth, like Benedick’s mother, is an American ex-patriot and she pushes Benedick to go to America to meet his maternal relatives. He avoids this action until he has talked to everyone he can think of in England who knew his mother and only when he reads one more fairy tale does he realize all of his answers are across the ocean.
Benedick and Cosmo engage in a great adventure that seems out of whack from the start as Benedick bounces on the hotel bed for so long each day that even young Cosmo becomes bored with it, but Benedick is still enchanted. They do New York to see his mother’s publisher, then hit the South to meet his aunt, who lives in a old Southern estate that she now runs as a guest house, along with her daughter, Rose, with whom Benedick falls in love instantly. She is the woman from his mother’s illustrations and he creates a world around her that mixes desperation for belonging and love that Freud would have much to say about. It’s only after they sleep together that they discover yet another of Benedick’s mother’s dark secrets, one which causes Benedick to try to kill himself and which leads him to the answers he had sought so hard for most of the novel.
Craig weaves Benedick’s descent into serious mental illness with the palimpsest of his mother’s mental illness in the fairy tales into an engaging tapestry (much like the cover) that draws the reader deeper and deeper into the dark wood of their minds and the dark wood of the fairy tales. She is so successful that one almost needs a prescription to recover their equilibrium after closing its covers.
Since Craig returned to Benedick’s ex-wife’s character, if only indirectly, in Life of Idleness, I have high hopes that we might see more of Benedick, hear an update on his condition, and that of young Cosmo and Flora, in her future work.