Living in Perhaps - Book of the Month
by Julia Widdows
It’s the mid 1960s and Carol, our narrator, is the child of staid, unadventurous, church-going parents. They and her younger brother, Brian, live in an unassuming seaside town, in an unassuming bungalow with its net curtains, its garden with perfectly clipped hedges and its immaculate lawn mown into perfect stripes. The only visitors are family members. This is a place where everything is about “appearances”. Girls go to Brownies, take piano lessons, wear hand-knitted cardigans and are not expected to have any ambition. Life is limited, quiet and controlled, pets are verboten except those that are “small, inexpensive and short-lived” and school is just somewhere you go until you can leave and get a job. Not much is asked of children and not much is given.
Over the enormous back hedge (the bane of Carol’s dad’s life) is another cosmos. This is the world of the noisy, chaotic, artistic, Hennessey family. This family is the antithesis to Carol’s and one that she longs to know more about, having merely eavesdropped by the hedge and caught surreptitious glimpses through a gap by the shed. So when Barbara, one of the six Hennessey children befriends Carol she enters a world of unplanned mealtimes, jungly gardens, summer-houses, books, and a granny and granddad (foreigners!) that live with the family. It’s a world where kids do as they please and where dad seems to earn a living by painting pictures (mostly of naked women) and mum moons about in odd clothing baking her own bread. The Hennessey’s are so dismissive of suburbia, and she wants so much to be accepted by them, that Carol tells them that she’s really the adopted child of the unexciting people over the hedge. As the blurb on the cover of the book aptly says “be careful what you wish for”. Identity and a place in the world is what the book is very much about.
Over the years the Hennessey clan move on with their lives leaving Carol behind and as she gets older and wiser she comes to see the family in quite a different light.
An older Carol from inside a psychiatric unit narrates the book and throughout the narrative there’s an underlying sense of menace that gives it a keen edge. It is funny, sad, cleverly structured, beautifully written and seamlessly captures the sense of time perfectly without resorting to clunkingly obvious cultural references and Carol is an intriguing and complex heroine. A first-class first novel.
Read our interview with Julia Widdows.