(Reviewed by Guy Savage OCT 18, 2008)
“Did I ever tell you that? Did I ever tell you that, when we were first married, it drove me absolutely …spare, it drove me absolutely spare the way you watched me all the time, the way I couldn’t move without you flinching, without you asking if I was alright, if I needed anything, asking what I was doing, asking where was I going. All the time, asking questions, checking up on me, all the bloody time!”
The Pools, is an impressive debut from British author, Bethan Roberts. Set in a very average, seemingly unexciting neighborhood, this story peels away the layers of normalcy to reveal a dark, disturbing view of life. This is the sort of story that makes you wonder just what goes on in the house next door, and whether or not your neighbors are as dull as they appear to be. The book begins at Christmas 1985, and it’s immediately apparent that something terrible has happened in the lives of middle-aged married couple, Kathryn and Howard.
The disturbing story unfolds through the eyes of two narrators--Howard and Joanna. Howard tells the bulk of the story, and his tale spans the years 1965-1985. Telescoping back to the year 1965, Howard tells the story of his gentle, touching courtship of young widow, librarian Kathryn. Using various excuses to loiter in the library, Howard, who lives with his mother, idolizes Kathryn from afar. Several chapters serve as milestones in their relationship as romance leads to marriage, their first disagreements, and the birth of their only child, Robert. Love and romance morph into disillusionment as distance slowly builds between Kathryn and Howard.
Local teenager, Joanna, tells other parts of the novel. After her father leaves and her mother brings in a predatory boyfriend, Joanna forges a relationship with a mentally damaged youth named Shane as a way of practicing her burgeoning sexual wiles. But when Howard and Kathryn decide to force their son, Robert into a change of schools, Joanna forms a fateful relationship with Robert.
One of the blurbs I read about The Pools claimed the novel was an "urban Cold Comfort Farm.” I don’t see that comparison at all, and anyone who expects a Cold Comfort Farm novel is going to be sorely disappointed. Cold Comfort Farm was funny and quaint. The Pools is an ominously dark novel, and from page one there’s a growing sense of doom and dread. There is nothing funny in The Pools whatsoever--this is very dark fiction, and just the sort of thing I have come to expect from the publisher, Serpent’s Tail.
Exuding an urban creepiness and horror, this well written, well-paced novel unfolds with a strong sense of claustrophobia that begins with Howard’s morbid fascination with his wife’s past and continues as Howard refuses to fully accept Robert. Howard is by every measurement, a “good” man—a loyal, devoted, responsible husband and father, an avid gardener, and yet nonetheless there’s something unhealthy brewing in Howard that remains largely unexamined. The unhealthy aspects of Howard’s character are not immediately apparent, but by the time the novel ends, I found myself going back through his actions and revising my interpretation of events. At the same time, however, Howard and Kathryn are very normal, average people, and Howard is a very believable flawed human being who isn’t quite "big" enough to embrace his wife’s past or knowledge about his son. And this makes the story more horrifying simply because it is encased in such normalcy with adults whose predatory (in some cases), inadequate and irresponsible actions have horrific impact on those around them.
The plot builds with a strong sense of dread and foreshadowing, and as a mere reader, I was powerless to stop events and yet drawn to turning each page towards the inevitable. The author creates such a sinister, threatening world from the banal and ordinary while examining relationships clouded by possessiveness and its necessary opposite--distancing. This isn’t a novel that I enjoyed reading as much as it is a novel that disturbed me, and it’s to the author’s credit that she has the talent to create that reaction.
- Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Pools at Serpent's Tail
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Interview with Bethan Roberts
- Mr B's interview with Bethan Roberts on writing The Pools
- BookWorm review of The Pools
- Heatseekers review of The Good Plain Cook
- Times Online review of The Good Plain Cook
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About the Author:
Bethan Roberts was born in Oxford and brought up in nearby Abingdon. She has MAs from Sussex and Chichester Universities and teaches creative writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. Roberts was awarded a "Jerwood/Arvon Young Writers" Prize for The Pools. She lives in Brighton in the south of England.