Saturday, March 13, 2010

Holiday


Since it's taking me a year to read John Fowles' Daniel Martin, I thought I would go back and look at a Booker Prize winner that I haven't reviewed for this blog. I will eventually finish the Fowles novel, hopefully today, if I can make it, but for now, let's take a look at the co-winner of the 1974 Booker Prize, Holiday by Stanley Middleton.

Holiday is the intensely cerebral and inward-looking story of Edwin Fisher. He has just left his wife and the first thing he does is go on holiday to an English beach-side resort for a week of decompression. He's gone back to the same town that his family used to visit when he was a child, and this triggers a flood of memories, mostly of his tempestuous marriage to Meg.

The narrator's voice is omniscient and very good at getting to the heart of the matter, which is matters of the heart, frankly. Fisher is captivated by a young married couple, and there is a mutual attraction between Fisher and the wife.

While Fisher walks around quite dumbly, it turns out his in-laws have coincidentally also taken a holiday in the same town. Fisher must contend with his father-in-law's constants machinations to repair the marital union.

I was not expecting a lot with this novel. I have never heard of Middleton, and from the brief synopsis I had read, this sounded like a Mrs. Dalloway but a about upper-class white male in the Seventies. Rather, this is an astute character portrait of an Englishman trying to show the stiff-upper-lip and retain a sense of identity in a marriage that consumes both parties.

Stories of infidelity and broken marriages seem to be extremely prevalent in the Seventies; as if the idea of monogamous wedlock was being slowly and systematically disintegrated. There's nothing wrong with this literary trope, but its ubiquity creates a spectrum of quality. Luckily, Holiday remains on the superior side.

This is well-written, frank, and quite thrilling, in an English sort of way, really. I was very anxious to find out the outcome, and I was never bored or put off by the tangents and constant memories.

They don't make books like these anymore, and for good reason. For all the positive comments I can make about the book, there is a certain un-ironic aspect to the narrative voice. This is an old-style novel that takes no pleasure or pain in regaling us with the protagonist's inner thoughts or motives. It is simply a portrait of a man, thrust into our hands with a simple "Here".

Regardless, Holiday is an enjoyable experience. Middleton's prose, while emotionally distant from its main character, is light and easy to read. His cast has enough depth for the novel's purpose, and its themes of Englishness and the apparent sanctity of marriage remains prescient in our time of constant divorce. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and if my library had any more novels by Middleton, I would read them.

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