Sue Townsend was treasured for being ‘funny’. Endorsements on her books always talk about ‘howling’ with laughter and throw such words as ‘uproarious’ and ‘laugh-out-loud’ around with abandon. I think they’re missing the point.
Sue Townsend’s book are funny. They do make you laugh. But to ignore the underlying seriousness of them all does them a disservice. The Queen and I has the British royal family dispatched to a council estate by a radical left wing government, and the story is packed with jokes. But describing how formerly very rich people adapt to life on social security is Sue Townsend’s way of examining life for all those who really do have to live on social security and deal with its mind-numbing bureaucracy. You can dismiss it all as leftist claptrap, but you can’t deny her intent.
The same seriousness is on display in The Woman Who. Eva Beaver, 50, married to a self-centered prig and mother of two precocious, anti-social children, gives it all up the day they go away to university. Tired of cleaning up after them, of being ignored and taken for granted, she packs everthing in, takes to her bed and refuses to leave. She just wants to be alone, to think, to sort things out.
What follows is funny and unsettling by turns, as everyone around Eva reacts in different ways. What it isn’t is a chucklesome celebration of a whacky eccentric. She teaches nobody valuable life lessons. Characters stay stuck in ruts. Many change for the worse. If there’s any light at the end of the tunnel, it’s in understanding Eva before she married, and in her very final observation.
If such an outline strikes you as self-indulgent snowflake bollocks, don’t read this book. Definitely don’t read it if all you want is a time-passing laugh. But if you’re prepared for a story about an ordinary person trying – in odd, extreme circumstances – to make sense of it all, take the chance.
For me, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.