The Waiting by Regi Claire
Bitch. That’s the word that comes to mind when reading The Waiting, and not only because the characters in this book, like the chorus of Meredith Brooks’ hit, realise the bad as well as good facets of womanhood. Lizzie, the elderly anti-heroine, has been hanging out with bitches all her life, and now there’s a new one on her doorstep, pushing into her home and stealing her secrets. Yet calling the women in Regi Claire’s latest novel bitches isn’t enough – as the song goes, women are saints, sinners, children, mothers and lovers or something in between, and it is in this multi-faceted, realistic portrait of women that the book achieves its version of female empowerment.
Claire toys with narratives of women in fiction to deliver this portrait. She includes stock characters: Tinker Jeanie, who makes menacing prophecies; saintly Isobel, class swot turned nice auld biddie; even Rachel, a schizophrenic villainess straight out of one of the crime novels Lizzie devours – long black coat tails and possible dog-poisoner cum mixed-up student. Claire draws a contrast with this to the ways the characters create fictions for themselves, before tearing the narratives to let you see the real personality below. The moment when the young Lizzie, dancing around her aunt’s shop at night in one of the dresses for sale, discovers she is stuck in it, neatly punctures her imagined role, throws cold water on her emergent sensuality, raises shame and guilt and teenage body-image issues all at once, and reminds you that she isn’t a romantic figurehead.
Motherhood, as with much else in this novel, can never be relied on. Lizzie plays the part of a mother but is not actually one, Marlene neglects and abuses her children, and Marlene’s mother repeatedly says “I wish I’d never made her.” It is typical of Claire’s layered, concise prose that in this one phrase, she can convey an unusual acceptance of responsibility and an emotional distancing, as well as reminding us of the further female aspects of sex, conception and nurturing. Responsibility for other people and the associated guilt inform much of Lizzie’s decision-making throughout the novel, with her unease as to where her duty to Rachel begins leaving her vulnerable, much as her guilt for awakening Marlene to her illegitimacy affects her decisions in their friendship. Although The Waiting succeeds brilliantly at revealing different concepts of the maiden, the mother and the crone once thought to represent women (to have an elderly heroine with this much bite is relatively unusual), it is in the aspect of female friendship that the novel wavers.
Lizzie’s relationship with her stepdaughters is deliberately subverted, but they still achieve a noticeably familiar maternal bond. However, Lizzie’s friendship with Marlene is the heart of the book, and yet it is hard to see why anyone would put up with Marlene for long. She lies, steals from Lizzie, betrays her and abandons her on numerous occasions; she taunts her own husband to suicide and lets her children go hungry. Lizzie, likewise, resents Marlene, taunts her with her illegitimacy and envies her freedom from the constraints of morality, and lets her slide into alcoholism. Lizzie does not find a traditional redemption through Rachel – and nor should she, given the novel’s attempts to challenge our assumptions of storytelling – so the most she achieves in her relationships with other women is a kind of scornful regard or a traditionalised motherliness. This is a clever, uncomfortable novel that can capture a hundred emotions in one deft phrase; but the bitches don’t do sisterhood.
The Maltese Cat
Word Power Books, rrp £7•99, 240pp