As with all of Hanif Kureishi‘s work you read his finely crafted story and when the story is finished you think wow! what happened there. This novella is no different and with his signature black comedy you are taken on a finely nuanced exploration of love, lust, helplessness and deception in a south London suburb. Waldo, a notable filmmaker, is confined by old age and ill health to his London flat. Even the villainous Eddie who is moving in on Waldo’s wife Zee is given a three dimensional character that leaves you sympathising with him.
Waldo’s looming death, which has been looming for some years now, shows no signs of being within reach. But Waldo proves that the mind can be stronger than the body. His body may be failing him but his volition has not; he has something to finish before he dies. Zee may appear as a subordinate wife but she is far from it and that is exactly what Waldo loves about her the most. They have enjoyed a good relationship and as there is no correct way to react to terminal illness we watch with astonishment, commiseration and laughter at their predicament.
The story centres around Waldo’s wife Zee and her lover Eddie. Waldo with time, patience and some cunning methods, (and Anita’s help), he pushes the story along until Zee is cognizant of her situation. The power base begins to turn and Zee starts to recognise her strengths, while Eddie starts to recognise his weaknesses. The power base shifts. Eddie and Zee begin to unearth their implicit theories and feelings about power and influence. Those which have had a profound impact on how they perceive problems and opportunities, and subsequently, how they decide upon particular courses of action.
Readers may consider some of the language lascivious but the carnal is not designed for titillation but as artifice to explore lust, helplessness and deception. Sex is used to work out the power dynamics in relationships. As Oscar Wilde said “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” The power dynamics in relationships are being explored. Waldo is simply the narrator of those relationship dynamics.
Consider Anita’s loneliness: There is no lascivious language in Anita’s world despite being a beautiful woman with a very successful career. Ultimately it is her beauty and success that has discriminated against her: As time ticked on and her career became ever more successful either she was too busy or men felt too intimidated to ask her out. In the extraordinary heights of distinguished careers men find their oxygen in the form of younger, less professionally driven women who will indulge their egos and care of them – be subordinate. Unfortunately, most successful men are not interested in acquiring an ambitious peer as a partner. Despite being very sociable, loving and loyal Anita find the tables increasingly turned towards men choosing younger women. Eventually she makes less effort and resigns herself to being alone until she meets the person she settles for.
Yes, on the surface Waldo is a selfish character, but then aren’t we all in some way. He proves that as he narrates his way around everybody’s lives and unpicks all their own inadequacies, failings and vulnerabilities. Maybe Waldo’s honesty about his selfishness is simply self-awareness something that must come from his impending death.
You may not agree with my analysis of this novella, but if you don’t come away thinking about the love, lust, helplessness and deception we all feel at some time in our life, then you must have read a different book to me.
Faber & Faber March 2017