In my last article I reviewed a book written about a group of people in an English village going through various changes and crises – but with an authors gentle touch which left a warm glow as I finished the book. Today, in Music for Torching, the subject matter is similar – families, their problems and their hidden lives, but with a far edgier touch, an altogether rawer treatment.
Paul and Elaine live in a middle-class suburban community with their two young boys. We find ourselves in a place of mown lawns, washed cars, dinner parties, neighbourhood barbecues and enough evidence of the good life to show us that these are well-heeled people, competing with each other for status and accustomed to hiding their dirty washing rather than airing it in public.
But Paul and Elaine are slowly going mad with the boredom of it all. They’ve been married a few years now and neither of them have realised their dreams (it is debatable whether they ever really knew what they were!). Paul’s office is go-getting, competitive sort of place while Elaine seems to have missed the boat career-wise and has drifted into the role of a resentful and not very successful home-maker. Their boys, Sammie and Daniel are growing into difficult late-childhood and Daniel is involved in some pretty unsavoury activities in the privacy of his bedroom (a padlock appears on his bedroom door at one stage as he attempts unsuccessfully to keep his parents out of his life).
It won’t be spoiling the book to reveal that on a Sunday evening at the end of a boring and frustrating holiday weekend, Paul and Elaine decide on a course of alcohol-fuelled self-destruction (the clue is in the title of the book and is mentioned in the blurb anyway). But their attempt to demolish their home and their lives is only partly successful. The house remains roughly intact and a surge of good-neighbourly benevolence leaps into action to salvage what remains.
The two boys go off to stay with their best friends (one of whom seems to have more than a few psychotic traits of his own), while Paul and Elaine move in with best friends George and Pat – the family from the American Dream whose lives of blissful perfection have more than a touch of Stepford Wives about them. At first Paul and Elaine to find themselves living with the perfect couple in their perfect house and find that the aura of gracious living rubs off on them:
(Paul) takes a piece of crab from her, pops it into his mouth, and says, “I love you. I love you so fucking much.” And in that moment he feels it, he really feels it. “That’s nice,” Elaine says. “I love you, too,” she adds, pulled into the mood of generosity. For the moment they are their fantasies of themselves, their very best selves, the people they’d like to be, and then just a minute later they are once again their more familiar selves—petty, boring, limited.
However, soon after the couple move in next door, Pat reveals more complex reasons for inviting her neighbours to live with her and the host couple’s own weaknesses are exposed – suffice to say that the author writes graphically and convincingly about bizarre behaviours throughout her book wherever they occur.
A M Homes knows how to build up a sense of imminent disaster and she drags her readers through one appalling crisis after another (often with huge dollops of satirical humour) while building up all the time to the final orgy of destruction. But this is not a horror movie: A M Homes writing has more subtlety than that and we feel that social comment is the point of it all rather than scandal for scandal’s sake.
At times I was reminded of Christos Tsoiklas’s book The Slap but in that case, the author seemed to revel in debauchery for its own sake but I think A M Homes book is a better-written book than that Australian portrayal of a hellish suburbia. However, like Tsoiklas, Homes’ has drawn a picture of suburbia as a society which has no values whatsoever, no culture, no art, where pleasure-seeking is all whether you are a retired office worker or a school-child. Such a society is bound to spawn aberrant behaviours and in A M Homes world these behaviours have become a way of life: this is the middle-America of American Beauty, complete with worldly-wise baby-sitters, drug abuse, alcoholism and adultery.
This is a good read if not particularly pleasant, and comes into the category of “car-crash” reading – you know something terrible is going to happen and you are just waiting for it to happen. I’d give it four stars because I much prefer the more “English” world found in The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life than this brasher, coarser place – which one is more realistic must remain a matter of opinion.