Magazine article The Spectator

Home Truths

Magazine article The Spectator

Home Truths

Article excerpt

'I don't understand him and never will, ' says Pearl, the pivotal character in Anne Tyler's 1982 novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. She's talking about her husband, but could be saying something much bigger, larger, more meaningful. That's the charm (and effortless skill) of Tyler's writing. She appears to be drawing very mundane portraits of family life - angry wives, feckless husbands and troublesome teenagers. The kind of lives lived behind respectable but not very interesting front doors. What can such ordinary-seeming people possibly tell us about deeper truths? Yet Tyler convinces us it's in those unachieved and often rather dull characters that real life resides. This is so reassuring.

Radio 4's new dramatisation of Tyler's book by Rebecca Lenkiewicz (and directed by David Hunter) draws us in straightway. We know from the start that Pearl's marriage to Beck, a travelling salesman, is doomed, not from anything overtly stated but by the things left out. Nothing romantic is ever said between them, no real communication takes place, and very soon we discover that for Pearl, 'Pregnancy took on the lustre that marriage once had.' Pearl has three children, Beck abandons them all, the children grow up, troubled and homesick for something they know they have missed out on but can't put into words.

Each 15-minute episode of the serial, which is playing daily in the Woman's Hour slot this week and next, takes us through such a lot of confusing emotions (who's to blame here? ), but without spelling it out and without a lot of screeching and door-banging (the scriptwriting team of The Archers could take note). 'At least I can have more closet space, ' says Pearl when she realises that Beck is never coming back. She visits her elder son Cody and his wife and feels 'the thin, tight atmosphere of an unhappy marriage'. But this being Tyler we discover it's 'Not a really terrible marriage. No sign of hatred, spitefulness, violence. Just a sense of something missing.'

This dramatisation works so well because the experience of listening to it is almost like reading; those moments of sudden connection as the words leap out at you and you think, 'Why, that's just how I feel' (or what I think). We know exactly who is who all the time and Barbara Barnes as Pearl heads a stellar cast (including Fenella Woolgar as Pearl's daughter Jenny) who somehow succeed in getting across to us Tyler's seemingly simple insights, not rushing, not overemphasising, just making plain. …

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