Domestic story a dysfunctional delight
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Some writers may consider a dysfunctional household and fraught marriage to be dreary material for fiction, but not Pauline Holdstock. In fact, this subject matter serves as creative fodder for her latest novel. It’s a humorous, engaging tale about a middle-aged female protagonist engulfed in domestic chaos in 1990s suburban Victoria.
Holdstock is an award-winning British-Canadian author whose novels have been published internationally. Though best known for historical fiction, she has lately switched her writing focus to contemporary settings.
Published in 2019, her most recent novel Here I Am! is written in the voice of a six-year-old boy and tells of his misadventures as a stowaway due to loss and family dysfunction. Though Confessions with Keith deals with similar themes, it differs greatly in structure and tone. This is Holdstock’s ninth novel. She currently lives in Victoria.
The story takes place over the course of 15 months. At the outset, we meet the bedraggled heroine Vita Glass. Married to Jack for 20 years, she finds that the spark is gone. He often travels for work, so she bears the brunt of responsibility for their four lively, outspoken children, ranging from age six to 15.
The title refers to the hairdresser Keith, who plays the role of father-confessor whenever Vita turns up at his beauty shop. Their uninterrupted conversations offer her a brief respite from the ongoing demands of her family.
The plot thickens when Jack inexplicably starts to distance himself from her and eschew communication. As a result, Vita must make some important decisions.
Replete with sensory details, the four-part narrative consists of journals written in Vita’s voice in succinct, cheeky prose.
In one vignette, she describes an unusual rash: “The blisters did not come up straightaway. By morning some of them had filled with blood so that you might say, if you had a medieval turn of mind, that my hands are now bejewelled with limpid opals and with rubies. Or you might say I have bubonic plague.”
It’s hard not to give spoilers without revealing the plot. Suffice it to say that the opening section documents the escalating household tension; the two middle parts deals with transitions in Vita’s life and the final portion centres more on Jack.
Much to Holdstock’s credit, the journal format works well. Not only do the journals establish a sense of intimacy that endears us to Vita, but they also convey a level of tension palpable on every page.
Throughout the novel, the motley crew of quirky characters, including friends, neighbours and extended family members, add another dimension to the story.
Also noteworthy is the trajectory of Vita’s writing career as portrayed in the novel, especially the highs and lows. The story also addresses issues such as ethics, writer’s block, collegiality, the politics of publishing, erotica as a genre and the role of marketing.
In short, Holdstock’s fast-paced comic novel with its entertaining narrative will captivate readers, especially those who relish domestic tales.
Bev Sandell Greenberg is a Winnipeg writer and editor.