It’s been a while since I last read a Moore. 3 and a bit years have whizzed by, just like that. With Bloomsbury republishing 5 of his novels in February, and my book group set to discuss all 5 next Monday, it is time to restart my completist read project.
I thought I’d start with the one I didn’t want to read. Bite the bullet. Put the one with the reputation behind me. You know the one about the adulterous wife with the pornographic sex scenes (that should send post-review sales sky-rocketing). But before you all get too excited, there’s only about a dozen pages. Just saying. Don’t want to mislead anyone. A dozen pages which according to received wisdom, prevented the novel from winning the 1976 Booker Prize. One of the judges vetoed it, because of the explicit sexual content. Quite right, too.
Shame because a) the 1976 winning novel, David Storey’s Saville has sunk into obscurity and b) the other 276 pages of Moore’s novel are rather good.
The events of the novel are very concentrated, taking just a few weeks to turn the lives of Sheila and her family completely upside down. It all begins when Sheila flies to Paris on holiday and her husband doesn’t. He’s a doctor in Belfast with a military contract. Set during the Troubles, he’s busy. Too busy to go on holiday with his wife, who doesn’t realise how dissatisfied she is until she has plenty of time to chew the cud. Then she meets Tom, a young American who is besotted with her on sight. He talks to her about art, theatre and (middle-aged bookworms, beware!) literature, follows her from Paris to the South of France and before you know it, we’ve reached the first of the pornographic paragraphs.
OK, I’ll relent a little. I understand why Moore included such graphic action. Sheila has lost faith in her family, in her god and seeks to abandon herself in lust, in sex. Complete, utter, rapturous abandonment. I don’t suppose that can be portrayed with a discrete ellipsis …
Anyway, things start to get complicated when lust turns to love and Sheila’s family start the fight to keep their wife, mother, sister.
Although the novel is told exclusively in third-person, viewpoints are switched and so Moore provides insight into more than one emotional outlook and this is what lifts the novel from being another tawdry tale of extra-marital sex. The pyschological portraits are quite fascinating: Sheila’s boorish husband, her heartbroken adolescent son, her confused brother. Sheila’s actions are understandable – the portrait Moore paints of the neglected wife stuck in the middle of the Troubles (and the British weather) a sympathetic one, although I was disturbed by the casual abandonment of her son. And I did not buy into the behaviour of her husband when he tracked her down in Paris. A boor he may be, but not a brute.
As for that final, final twist ….. very mysterious.
From the beginning of Moore’s career a problem existed that came increasingly to damage his novels – a willingness to work in broad strokes … in The Doctor’s Wife, the social detail, the dialogue and even the characters are brisk, with a strange lack of nuance and shadow. Sheila, the doctor’s wife, has various conversations with her husband that read like early, hastily written drafts. Her American lover has no presence in the novel and the two observers of the scene in the South of France are pure fictional contrivances.
I must say that I agree whole-heartedly with the comment about the lover. Not so sure about the rest. Besides would adding the nuance and shadow have fattened the novel making it very un-Moore like? This might also have destroyed some of the novel’s verisimilitude. Moore, like McEwan today, chose to concentrate on a moment of crisis. I haven’t found much nuance and shadow in real human beings at such moments. What do other Moorites think?