BELOVED Stranger is a quaint title for Clare Boylan's terse and truthful book about married love. The ties that bind Dick and Lily Butler after 50 years of marriage in the same Dublin suburb have grown into their flesh like too tight wedding rings. They have become their marriage, a two-headed creature of compromise and small concessions. Dick pares his wife's corns when her feet are bad and Lily makes him the semolina she secretly hates. All in all, it feels like love. But when Dick, solicitous responsible Dick, goes mad, the emotional dam Lily has built and spent her life containing is swept away.
Boylan's portrait of an old man's madness is terrible to watch. Dick's dementia is not the slight dotage of sitcoms. This is full- strength Lear- on-the-heath stuff, pathless and pitiless and destructive. Dick suffers paranoid delusions and takes to sending death threats through the post. He develops morbid sexual jealousies and tries to set fire to his wife.
For the first time, Lily finds herself unable to follow where her husband leads and is utterly disorientated by this freedom. She has read her grown- up daughter's feminist books with approval, but it has never occurred to her that Greer, Friedan et al would be speaking to her. And so she continues, even when her husband is hospitalised, to be manipulated by a kind of remote control.
All of this would be understandable, admirable even, if Lily and Dick had been truly devoted, but this is the spanner Boylan lobs into the works. As Lily is forced to consider her marriage it becomes clear, to the reader at least, that love was not the point. …