It’s a fear of many children that they are going to grow up to be “just like your mother/father”. This is often stated as a simple comment from people who likely mean it as a compliment, albeit one with a touch of mischief, but it strikes at the core of something vital in us all. Even if there is admiration and love, the fear is not that we are like our parents on some superficial level, but that we are doomed to share their failings and destined to repeat their mistakes. It’s a fear which says more about the child than parent, but which is passed down seemingly in perpetuity from father to son, from mother to daughter.
Ajay Close’s latest novel The Daughter Of Lady Macbeth deals with this fear in a manner which is as understandable and believable as it is heartrending. The mother and daughter at the centre of the novel are Lilias and Freya. Freya is trying to get pregnant with her husband Frankie, and we follow them through increasingly desperate visits to “The Everyday Miracle Clinic” and increasingly infuriating conversations with their friends Kenny & Ruth who have a child they call “The Afterthought”, and who thoughtlessly advise that “Kids are tougher than you think”. Meanwhile Freya and Frankie try every trick in every book, and sex has becomes the means to a very specific end.
Close takes this scenario and uses it to examine the social and psychological expectations which have come to bear on Freya in particular, but not in isolation. She thinks not only about her own desire to be a mother, but what pressure is brought to bear by Frankie’s desire to be a father. She is worried that they are doing this for superficial reasons – as a safety measure in case they become bored of each other, to halt the loss of friends as they in turn have their own children, to avoid the stigma of being childless. These are thoughts and conversations that many people have, but too few have written about.
Add to this Freya’s difficult and complex relationship with Lilias who had Freya when she was young and single, and who has raised her with at times barely concealed resentment, at least that’s how Freya feels it. She also feels the terrible irony of being a less than wanted child when there is nothing she wants more for herself, albeit with constant doubts, and is aware that the two may not be unrelated. There are more secrets and lies in this family than in most, and Freya’s quest to discover the identity of her father only adds to the unease between the two. There is love between daughter and mother, but there is little doubt as to who Lilias puts first. Or, is this just another aspect of the role she has decided to play, or which she had thrust upon her?
By jumping in time between chapters from present day to Lilias’ youth, (or Lili, as she was then known), Close allows comparisons between what Freya believes to be the case, what Lilias has allowed her to believe, and the truth. It is difficult to associate the young Lili with the imposing matriarch Freya knows, but we see that she has been as shaped and affected by the social expectations of that time as those Freya has to deal with. The idea of a permissive society as the ’60s move into the ’70s and what it promised is shown to be as thin a construct as any ideas of what is sold as the perfect lifestyle today.
That’s what The Daughter Of Lady Macbeth does so well – it depicts how quickly hopes and dreams can be dashed and destroyed, but that people can cope by adapting, adjusting and a refusal to give in. It’s both heartbreaking and uplifting because it shows not only what the human spirit has to endure, but what it can endure and still continue. Close is writing about the drama of people’s everyday lives, and does so with an insight which is rare and keenly felt.
The writing is memorable, and at times diplays a sensuality in the descriptions which will bring you to tears. The prologue would stand on its own as a short story, and the scene where Lili is helping with the birth of piglets will stay with you for some time. Close also looks at fears about our own bodies, how they can fail us and how that can make us feel less than whole, no matter what others may say. It is a novel about what it means to be a daughter and a mother, but also an individual forced into the company of others and the multiple roles which we are conditioned to play to try and make such relationships work.
It is through Freya’s relationships that the story is played out. Close presents her characters as almost caricatures initially; the self-obsessed ageing actress who puts her own vanity and ego ahead of her daughter, the literally ‘horny-handed’ son of the soil, the TV personality who dons ever tighter trousers and flirts with ever younger researchers in a bid to stave off the inevitable. But as the book progresses each of these masks are stripped away to reveal vulnerable, confused and frightened people who are all making mistakes and trying to live with the consequences.
If you haven’t read Ajay Close before then The Daughter Of Lady Macbeth is a fine place to start. If you want to read further may I suggest Forspoken, one of the most overlooked novels of the 1990s. Both books show a writer who understands the human condition in the raw, and recognises that suffering and sadness unite us, even if it does not seem that way at the time. While writing a thoroughly modern novel Ajay Close has told a story which is eternal yet rarely addressed. Once more, with feeling.