I thoroughly enjoyed the first Angela Huth novels I read, Easy Silence and Invitation to the Married Life, so I’m always on the lookout for her other novels. Last year I picked up Land Girls, which I also enjoyed, though it didn’t have quite the mordant wit that characterized Easy Silences especially. Last weekend, in honour of “Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day,” Maddie and I were in the Jade *W* (where I inevitably find two or three or four or [sigh] five books I can’t resist) and this time I happily discovered Wanting and Of Love and Slaughter, which means I now have about half of her oeuvre (at least of novels). In the morbid state of mind inevitably brought on by end of term chores (marking! calculating grades! invigilating exams!)–and made worse this year by the evil virus I have yet to shake off–I thought a little dark humour would be just right, so I chose Wanting for my leisure reading. I hoped it would cheer me up without being too cheerful.
It didn’t quite work out that way: Wanting turns out to be just as dark and twisty as Easy Silence but without the same charm. Somehow, the husband foolishly besotted with another woman in Easy Silence is much funnier trying to knock off his unsuspecting wife (“Over you go!”) than Harry Antlers is in pursuit of of the unwilling object of his affection. I would say that stalking just isn’t funny, and that’s the difference, except that of course murder is also completely serious. Perhaps it’s Harry’s own utter lack of charm: he’s just brutish and obsessive and repulsive, and when he menaces poor Viola with the jagged edge of a broken milk bottle, the absurdity of the situation seemed overwhelmed by its gruesome possibilities.
Maybe Huth wasn’t really trying to make us laugh this time, at least not with Harry. It’s true that among the array of other characters are some with winsome eccentricity. There’s Alfred Baxter, for instance, and his girls–about whom I won’t give be too specific, as they provide some of the more surreally delightful (if also depressing) moments in the novel. Their seaside picnic, for instance, is a lovely touch, though I have no idea whether it is meant to have any particular thematic resonance. I expected the girls to reappear somehow in the denouement; that they didn’t–that in fact there was not really any great coming together of the novel’s various strands–was part of my disappointment. Ian McEwan (who kept coming to mind, perhaps because this book is a gentle cousin to Enduring Love) would have made something more of those girls. I suppose they are the most elusive examples of unfulfilled love, literally representing something Alfred and his wife want but can’t have. Harry wants Viola, Viola wants Richard, who wanted the wrong woman; Gideon has to discover what he wants, Maisie finally gets what she wanted. Remarkably, Hannah wants Harry, at least for a while, and then he turns his wanting on her, and so it continues. Huth is an excellent storyteller. She has the knack of saying just enough–and having her characters say just enough:
She met his eye. Her corn-coloured hair, full of green shadows from the sky, clouded the contours of her innocent face. Harry rapidly sifted through the next lines that came to him: You are the most beautiful girl I’ve ever met, Viola Windrush, and I love you entirely. Come away with me now, for ever. Please just have dinner with me.
‘Bitch,’ he said.
The word hit Viola between the eyes, a well-aimed bullet.
You’re left with the impression that wanting of one sort or another drives most people, but not necessarily forward. Huth doesn’t seem interested in probing too deeply, though, into the mysteries of desire. In this novel at least, it seems erratic, irrational, sometimes invigorating, but more often haunting or threatening–not always literally, but that lurking possibility that love shades into mania gives Wanting (and Easy Silence, now that I think about it) its dark undercurrent.