Posted in Book Reviews

Book Oxygen Review

What We Did in the Dark

Ajay Close

Published by Sandstone Press 13 February 2020

322pp, paperback, £8.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book

Catherine Carswell was born in Glasgow, in 1879, and became an author, journalist and biographer. She wrote a frank, controversial biography of Robert Burns that resulted in her being rebuked from the pulpit by Burns traditionalists. She was also sent a bullet with a note asking her to ‘make the world a cleaner place’. Carswell wrote two novels, Open the Door and The Camomile. Neither were autobiographical but both drew on experiences from her own life. She always glossed over her first marriage to Herbert Jackson, an artist and soldier, whom she married within a month of meeting him. Award-winning writer Ajay Close takes the bare bones of information about this marriage and fleshes out the relationship between Catherine and Herbert in a perceptive novel that has the pace and suspense of a thriller.

The year is 1904 and 25-year-old Cathie has been studying English Literature at Glasgow University. However, although an impressive student, she cannot be awarded a degree because she is a woman. Restless and longing for excitement, Cathie meets Herbert Jackson, a Boer War veteran and artist, and agrees to marry him within a few weeks.

The Jackson family seem more relieved than happy that Herbert is marrying, and the couple takes off for an extended honeymoon in Europe. Herbert seems agitated on the journey and explains that he is being watched by persons unknown. At first Cathie is sceptical but wants to believe her new husband. Soon it becomes clear that Herbert is paranoid, and Cathie feels caught in a trap of her own making. A nightmarish journey through Italy commences, with Herbert becoming more and more unhinged. When she tells him she is pregnant, Herbert says she has been sleeping with the Prince of Wales and tries to kill her. He watches her every move and accuses her of being unfaithful with any man who comes near. Most of the story is told in the second person with Cathie addressing Herbert. This transports the reader into Cathie’s mind as she struggles to work out whether it is Herbert or herself that is losing grip, adding to the claustrophobia of the relationship.

It would be easy to portray Herbert as the villain of the piece, but the inclusion of several letters to his brother during his service in the Boer War show a different side to the man. He is wholly unsuited to army life and the atrocities that the British inflict on their Boer prisoners – many of them women and children – affect him deeply. He fails to command the respect of his men and becomes convinced that they are deliberately trying to humiliate him. His army service ends in disappointment.

Fictionalizing the lives of real people is a task full of potential pitfalls but Close’s extensive research and compassion for her characters helps her avoid them. Cathie displays hints of the courageous, modern woman she would become, one who made legal history when she decided to divorce Herbert on account of his mental health disorder and won. This is a beautifully crafted novel about a gruelling period in Carswell’s life, and it is a fitting tribute to a writer who was almost lost to obscurity.

Posted in Book Reviews

The Daughter of Lady Macbeth – Book Oxygen Review

The Daughter of Lady Macbeth

Ajay Close

Published by Sandstone Press 16 February 2017

280pp, paperback, £8.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book

Mothers and daughters have long provided inspiration for writers. Their complex, multifaceted relationships are like no others. Lilias, a jobbing actress, is the Lady Macbeth of the title in Ajay Close’s fifth novel. Now in her later years, Lilias was a reluctant mother to Freya, who spent her childhood being dumped on friends while Lilias was working, or helping out the landladies in countless theatrical digs. Freya has never known who her father is as Lilias refuses point blank to reveal his identity. It is hard not to be amused by Lilias even as she displays her innate selfishness. She is a narcissist and has a casual relationship with the truth, especially when it comes to her career. The world revolves around Lilias, or it should, and Freya is a bit-player in her mother’s life.

Now in her early forties, Freya and her husband, Frankie, are trying to have a baby and are going down the IVF route. It is costly but Frankie is a television sports reporter and Freya is a senior civil servant working for the Scottish government so they have the funds. They sign up with a private clinic out in the glorious Perthshire countryside and Freya is told she must live locally in order to visit the clinic daily. This, she is told, is the secret of their success. Freya sees the photos of dozens of cherubic babies pinned to the walls of the clinic and grudgingly agrees. There is a business-like brutality to the clinic. Vast sums of money are demanded and couples are put on a production line, desperately hoping there is a baby when they reach the end of it.

Freya is a fascinating character, seemingly well-adjusted in spite of her peripatetic childhood and hoping to give a child a very different upbringing to her own. She is often the adult in her exchanges with her mother but Lilias can still cut her to the quick with the sharp side of her tongue. Working to create a family gives Freya the impetus to find out more about her own.  She decides to look for her father which enrages her mother but Lilias has one more great dramatic role to perform. The past echoes in the present as Freya, unwittingly, seems to be reliving her mother’s life during Lilias’s pregnancy, which is told in vivid flashbacks.

Frankie has adored Freya since they were children but the IVF process takes its toll on their marriage. Freya displays some ambivalence about their relationship and her impulsive actions put it at risk. Frankie is also having a mid-life crisis as a younger colleague at work threatens his position, which only adds to the strain on their marriage.

Close is exploring important matters; nature and artifice, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, loyalty and betrayal. Her prose, as usual, is beautifully polished but this is her most emotional novel to date and is partly inspired by her own experiences. As a picture of a marriage crumbling under pressure it is melancholy and all too genuine. However, it is the rounded and byzantine relationship between Freya and Lilias that lingers long in the mind.