Moving swiftly on from a novel in which grief is an unaffordable luxury (Mildred Pierce) to one in which grief pervades every page. Edward’s Docx’s 2007 Booker longlisted second novel documents the impact of the death of a mother.
Elizabeth Glover resides in St. Petersburg. She has returned after many years of exile. Her family has been scattered to the four winds. Her husband is living in Paris, her son in London and her daughter in New York. The husband is a promiscuous hedonistic bisexual (hence the separation!), the son, Gabriel, is torn between two lovers (poor soul!) and the daughter, Isabella, is living with an amiable yet unlovable partner in New York. A fractured, deeply alienated family, therefore, with problems of its own making. Despite this when Masha (as she is fondly known) dies, the family falls apart even more. The fragile stability of each existence is rocked as one by one, the survivors are stripped to the bone. Can they pull themselves out of their self-indulgent preoccupations and provide each other with comfort and support?
So much for Masha’s western family. What about her Russian one? Her secret illegitimate son – Arkady, born and abandoned to the orphanage system before her marriage, has problems, not of his own making, serious obstacles of circumstance. (Gorbachev didn’t deliver good things to everyone, it transpires.) Yet, when Arkady is offered a solution to his problems, his chip on the shoulder prevents him from accepting it. Fortunately he has a guardian angel – Henry – the most unlikely guardian angel you’re ever likely to meet, one incapable of helping himself, yet with altruism in abundance and a capacity for self-sacrifice, born from recognition of his own monumental failings. It’s Henry who manufactures Arkady’s meeting of his half-siblings and his final chance of success. But will Arkady take it?
While the woman at the centre of this woe remains mysterious, the characterisations of this wide range of characters are colourfully drawn. Christopher, Masha’s husband is the man I love to hate (don’t get me started!). But, as his own health deteriorates and his vigour reduces, it’s impossible to remain unsympathetic. The reduction of the man is so vividly drawn. Neither did I understand Henry for a while; I didn’t believe his heroin addicted brain could be capable of such self-sacrifice. Yet as his motivations become clear, his character is invested with authenticity and saddening poignancy.
Similarly colourful is Docx’s portrayal of urban Russia – Henry’s addiction ensures our introduction to the underbelly of Russian society. The comfortable material existence of Christopher, Gabriel and Isabella pales in comparison although most of Docx’s satire is reserved for it; the prime example being the magazine that gives the novel its title. Gabriel, the most incapable, lethargic and useless of the protagonists, is the editor of Self-Help! – a monthly spin-off from the embarrassingly successful series of Randy K Norris Self-Help book – “translated into sixty languages and the first step on the road to recovery for millions”.
Once I’d realised I was allowed to sympathise with the flawed characters, even if I could not like them, the 523 pages flew by. It speaks volumes about the author’s talent that, in a novel about family secrets and lies, he diverts the reader’s attention so effectively that the final twist appears from nowhere. One final point – I’m not going to draw the inevitable comparison with Edward St Aubyn, even if it’s begging to be made. For a start I have only read “Mother’s Milk” which I found laugh-out-loud funny (as opposed to the wry smiles of Self-Help). I have, therefore, still to sample St. Aubyn’s heroin-addiction scenes. No rush. Self-Help imparts more than enough information on that score.