Home Fires, by Elizabeth Day
Kinship ties end up in a claustrophobic knot in Day’s impressive second novel
Social class, personal expectations, grief, shame and anger in all its faces dominate this intense second novel from the English writer Elizabeth Day. It is the story of unloved daughters who set out to become determined mothers. At its centre, a power struggle rages between Caroline, an insecure middle-aged mother of a son intent on joining the army, and her cold mother-in-law, Elsa. However much Caroline has fought to maintain her son’s love, it is Elsa who has his confidence. Somewhere in the background is the quiet accountant, Andrew, husband to Caroline, son to Elsa and father to Max.
Day is an empathic observer. She is meticulous in teasing and dissecting each sensation her characters experience. They tend to stare at the ordinary in an attempt to make sense of the horrors that surround them. This new novel builds on the themes explored in Day’s edgy debut, Scissors, Paper, Stone (2011), primarily the damage inflicted in the name of love. In that first novel, a husband systemically destroys both his wife and daughter. The small unit emerges as a trio who may as well have been shipwrecked. Day provides an interesting life raft, a hospital bed around which the various crimes committed and responsibilities evaded, are finally confronted. It has the unfolding drama of a stage play, as well as some of the theatricality. The prose is deliberate, precise and bone dry. Day is preoccupied with physical detail. She uses it as an anchor and also as a way of balancing her unease with dialogue.
This time, she has decided to push the door of family life that bit more open to broaden the span of time. The framework of Home Fires may appear to be mainly that of Elsa, a terrified child who grows into a terrifying adult, yet there is more to it than that, as her life also coincides with almost a century of English social and political history.
Caroline has lived in fear of her mother-in-law’s censure since their first meeting. Their relationship consists of Caroline’s efforts to avoid giving unintentional offence. There are unwritten rules: the slightest word or gesture from Caroline may irritate Elsa, whose grandeur, while alluded to, is never fully explained. Her personality has been shaped by being bullied and brutalised by her father, a stranger who returned from the first World War when Elsa was a small child. His homecoming not only disrupted her happy arrangement with an until-then doting mother, it also placed her at the mercy of her father’s rages.
Elsa is two people; a traumatised child and a domineering adult. In both of her novels to date, Day has chosen to work within tightly structured chapters that shift between the present and the past. Her characters are survivors dealing with extreme emotions, their own and those of others. A great deal is revealed early in the novel when Caroline and Andrew, a quiet, loving husband soon to flounder on the edges of Caroline’s grief, are distressed that their only child, Max, a clever boy, declines university in favour of joining the army. To Caroline’s horror, her son has sought support from his grandmother. “Her mouth was dry. She disliked the idea of Elsa currying favour with Max, of exploiting a momentary lapse in her judgment. She disliked the thought of the two of them being close, forming an alliance that excluded her.”
Caroline cannot understand why her mother-in-law, whose son, her husband, is an accountant, should encourage her grandson to join the army. The old woman’s reasoning is very strange. “You must realise,” begins Elsa, “that young men need to fight. They need to get it out of their system.” Elsa’s attitude is even odder given the fact that her father, who had gone to war, returned damaged beyond repair. Elsa is portrayed as brittle and unpredictable: when she smiles, “her lips are stretched like a rubber band on the brink of snapping”.
The story pivots on two contrasting realities: a soldier who returns from war a failure, and another, his great-grandson, whose death not only tests his mother but helps her find some purpose. Day wisely sketches in a sense of the real Max. If this novel has a hero it could be the passive Andrew, a man whose greatest achievement is in trying to help.
Elsa’s devastating physical decline enables Day to test her own powers. In Scissors, Paper, Stone , she looked at a woman ageing. Anne, the brutalised wife, examines the slow death of her beauty. In this new book, another damaged woman is trapped within a dying body. Caroline, having consistently failed to match her mother-in-law verbally, finally secures a shocking victory of sorts when she leaves the old woman, who had fought off her efforts to help, lying in her own urine.
It is a dramatic sequence in a novel in which the characters are placed in extreme emotional situations. Lives unravel, battles are waged and lost, love eventually wins out as Caroline and Andrew endure and try to heal. Yet the image that lingers is that of an isolated event stored away in Elsa’s long memory. She recalls once having seen a woman follow a man over Putney Bridge. “The woman had touched the tip of his elbow and the man had turned round and then, with a curious kind of smile, the woman had handed him a white feather. It was her smile Elsa remembered. It had seemed so out of place.” Then she, Elsa, had pondered the word coward: “Coward. Is that what her father is?”
In Day’s previous novel, Charlotte, the grown daughter, stands over her comatose father in his hospital bed. She beats his inert body. Elsa, in Home Fires , is another daughter who has been denied and abused. Admittedly, this new novel works on a wider canvas: a son’s death provides the narrative catalyst as well as, ultimately, a vital lifeline. Elizabeth Day pursues her study of characters attempting to keep the past at bay with a biblical intensity reminiscent of early Anita Brookner and a prose style closer to that of Pat Barker .
Day’s tales are cautionary; they warn that the damage men do lives after them. Although none of its characters are as developed as Anne and her clumsily astute friend Janet from Day’s previous book, Home Fires conveys a broader vision of life with the claustrophobia of emotional repression. The most interesting aspect of this very English story, which strives tenaciously towards unsettling truths, is its redeeming faith in the small acts of kindness, the tentative gestures and unexpected rebellions that prove there is life beyond mere existence.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent