Magazine article The Spectator

Fractured Middle-Class Manners

Magazine article The Spectator

Fractured Middle-Class Manners

Article excerpt

D. J. Taylor

THE WILD by Esther Freud Hamish Hamilton, 14.99, pp. 256

Like her first novel, Hideous Kinky, Esther Freud's fourth work of fiction is built on the observations of a child. Tess, on whom much of the action is focused, is a horribly intense - and horribly convincing - nine-year-old, mesmerised by her teacher's bloodcurdling resumes of Norse mythology, piously absorbed by the newlyhatched chicks placed in her care, and madly in love with William, the blond, thirtysomething, divorced father of three on whom she and her mother and brother are somewhat haphazardly quartered.

Thus framed, The Wild immediately declares itself as a vengeful expose of a certain kind of middle-class, milk-and-water English bohemianism. Tall, tight-trousered William and his three daughters (their mother is somewhere in Scotland) inhabit a converted Sussex bakery, where they are despised by the genteel neighbours for owning a van instead of a Volvo and for a number of less specific social irregularities. Something of the locale's tone can be gathered from the arrival of a furious round robin - signatures apparently collected overnight - when the Bakery changes its name to the `Wild' of the title.

Admitted to this semi-sylvan idyll William has great fun tearing his shirt off in Ashdown Forest the better to chainsaw firewood - in the guise of lodgers, vague, abandoned Francine (`writer' husband holed up in London with a string of floozies) and her children react according to gender. Broadly speaking, mother and daughter are enraptured by their guitarstrumming landlord and prepared to get on with his tightly regimented progeny. Twelve-vear-old Jake, on the other hand, hates him from the start.

What follows is a half-tense, half-hilarious account of communal family life, all of it dominated by the quaintly self-regarding figure of William. Whether poring over his household rotas, summoning his daughters to strip off for a rain-dance or bragging about his ravioli, William is a laugh a minute - a particularly funny scene finds him persuading Tess and Jake to refurbish a gypsy caravan for their summer project and then revealing that the vehicle is earmarked as his study - while never quite losing his faintly sinister glow. A great many lies, one can deduce; got told during the custody battle. …

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