Rites of passage

2009-05-27 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

To Heaven by Water

Justin Cartwright

Bloomsbury

THE central character of Justin Cartwright’s new novel is David Cross, a retired TV news anchor whose years as the face of the news, able to assume any appropriate expression behind his make-up as he enters the living rooms of the nation, have made him a minor celebrity. His wife, Nancy, who ran his house and brought up his children, has recently died, and David is trying to come to terms with the fact that this, in many ways, is more of a liberation than a source of grief. As the novel unfolds, the fault lines that lurked behind the marriage are slowly revealed.

But David’s children, the rather unlikeable Ed and the vulnerable Lucy, sincerely mourn their mother, and find it harder to move on into another phase of their lives where, instead of always being able to return to her for comfort and guidance, they find themselves obliged to worry about their father. He has taken to exercise in a big way, and from the TV anchor uniform of suit and tie, has moved to trendy gear which Lucy in particular finds a matter of concern. And besides their father, Ed and Lucy have their own problems. Ed’s wife, Rosalie, is struggling to fall pregnant, and he is feeling increasingly trapped in a profession he doesn’t believe is his natural home. And Lucy’s love life is not going well.

The novel is driven by character rather than plot, and is a beautifully constructed exploration of people’s lives as they deal with the rites of passage that are not huge events but are part of the fabric of living. The only character who strikes a faintly discordant note is David’s eccentric brother Guy, a leftover hippie who communes with nature in the Namib Desert. David’s visit to him is disastrous and funny by turns, but it sits a little uneasily with the minutiae of other events in the novel.

Cartwright has an unforgiving eye, and shines a cold light on the weaknesses and flaws of his characters. But once again, he has produced a powerful and satisfying book.

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