I have been reading Maggie Gee’s fiction, on and off, for the last 10 years.
I first read her 1997 novel The Ice People, a dystopian novel set in a frozen world where where children are rare, child-size robots run out of control and homosexuality is the norm. Relationships between men and women are as frozen as the planet. One man bucks the trend – he falls in love. From memory (it is a decade since I read it), it’s a painful experience. I remember having no sympathy at all for the woman, Sarah. This is a novel highlighting the problems with radical feminism. Selfishness vs selflessness. Does either model result in happiness?
I then read her 2002 Orange prize shortlisted novel The White Family. Again from memory I remember it as a no-holds barred, completely un-PC (hurrah!) look at racial hatred in modern Britain. The synopsis on fantastic fiction tells you more and brings back good memories. I’m putting this one on my to-be-reread pile. Because I remember it as a 5-star read.
With two fabulous reads under my belt, I then inexplicably stopped reading her. An appearance at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival prompted me to propel some of her more recent work to the top of the TBR. I bought the 2009 release, My Driver, in preparation only to discover that it is a sequel to her 2005 novel, My Cleaner. So I bought and read that first.
Mary Tendo is not Vanessa Henman’s cleaner. She used to be but has since lived for many years in her native Uganda. Vanessa Henman is not a writer. She tries but, after two relatively successful novels, she has not published anything for year, which does not prevent her from working as a creative-writing tutor. Vanessa, a white middle-class divorced woman lives with her son Justin. Justin is a mess, a 22-yr old depressed wreck who has retreated to his bedroom refusing to speak. Suddenly Justin asks for Mary, the woman who brought him up while his mother was forging her career. At her wit’s end, Vanessa asks Mary to return. Surprisingly (for the two women did not part amicably), Mary agrees.
With her return, the balance of power in the Henman household shifts. The reader can predict this from the moment Mary recalls her first meeting with Vanessa at her job interview many years ago.
I went round to see her, smiling, smiling. She shook my hand as if we were equals (I was never equal to the people I cleaned for. I knew all about them, all their dirtiness, the secret habits that no one else knew, the places they left snot, or sanitary towels, the fruit they left to moulder in the bins meant for paper. And so, I was superior.)
Vanessa preserves her illusion of superiority even in present circumstances. She still refers to Mary as her cleaner. As the story progresses, it becomes clear it is the only crutch she has. Mary’s sense of self-worth is too great whereas “the Henman” as Mary calls her, is a lady whose home life is built on sand. Gradually Mary takes over the house. but she will not take on extra duties without adequate renumeration and she is an expert negotiator. Mary has a plan – she didn’t submit to “the Henman”‘s company through compassion. And while she is genuinely concerned for Justin, if he thinks she’s going to namby-pamby him ….
” So are you ill, Justin? What do you think?”
“What do you think?” He turned the question to me. ….
But all of a sudden I was very angry. I did not show it, but I wanted to strike him. I thought of the sickness in the villages. This mummy’s boy should be sent to Uganda.
The presenter of home truths. Through Mary’s eyes we see the contrast between the two countries and while she doesn’t idealise her own, she certainly has a poor view of contemporary British society
These English houses are like lost worlds, detached from each other, buried in trees, overgrown with plants and strangled with secrets. Whereas life in Kampala is lived outside. The houses there have thin walls and big windows, and quarrels and weddings are all in the open, though sometimes people are beaten in secret. But here in London, everything is secret.
Vanessa, on the other hand, isn’t at all perceptive, which might explain her writer’s block. Asked whether Justin’s depression runs in the family, she replies:
Not on my side, at least. Just my mother’s brother who killed himself. Admittedly, my mother was sometimes unwell, but she never actually stayed in bed. Once or twice, she went away to hospital.
The source of Justin’s problem is, of course, his own secret. With Mary on hand to facilitate the resolution (albeit following a comedy of errors), Vanessa’s experience is bittersweet. She does care for her son. She’s just not equipped to deal with him. The ultimate irony is Mary has unresolvable family problems of her own which, in her unguarded moments, infuse her with a profound sadness.
This is only one of the similarities she shares with the loathed Henman. At first glance diametrically opposed, it becomes clear that the two women share much more than either is prepared to admit.
My Cleaner returns to the themes of The White Family – domestic life and racism. While the earlier work was a tragedy, the underlying tone of My Cleaner is comic, with the Henman the butt of most jokes. That said Gee avoids the trap of creating caricature. The psychologies of both women are real. The reader can and does sympathise with both. This adds a layer of complexity that keeps the reader guessing and puzzling. How will the clash of cultures end this time? And who is the racist? Mary, who thanks God every day that she is an African woman, or the patronising do-gooder Vanessa?