If contemporary literature often seems populated exclusively by abusive fathers and vengeful mothers, perhaps that’s because the importance of being a good parent has become central to our understanding of what it means to lead a decent life.
We read less, however, about how vital it is to be a good child. Deborah Moggach, who is probably best known for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, another study of the changes forced upon those written off by society for having the impudence to reach a pensionable age, considers this theme in her new novel, an occasionally amusing, but ultimately unsatisfying study of a pair of siblings, Phoebe and Robert, coming to terms with the gradual diminishment of their father’s health and the unravelling of secrets that have been kept from them throughout their lives.
The siblings, terribly middle-class and proper, are accustomed to a certain amount of deference
Early sections of The Carer shift back and forth between the siblings, who are both well into middle-age and feeling dissatisfied with their respective lots. Phoebe is having disappointing sex with a tramp-like fellow in a hut in the middle of a forest, while Robert’s greatest intimacy with his wife comes from watching her read the news every morning on breakfast television.
Despite their mutual ennui, neither is particularly interested in looking after their ailing father and, although they pretend to feel guilty about not taking responsibility for him themselves, they hire a carer, the latest in a line of women charged with putting up with James’ moods and tantrums. It’s what Mary Poppins Returns might have been had the film-makers gone in a different direction, this time with the children employing a hearty, asexual woman to look after their mischievous parent rather than the other way around.
The carer in question is Mandy, a no-nonsense Norland nanny type, who takes to the job with gusto, charming the old man as she brings him on outings and treats him to box-sets. A former professor of physics, James has spent a lifetime being listened to and, with his wife dead, he needs someone to fulfil the role that his children seem unwilling to take up. James and Mandy’s friendship grows to the exclusion of Phoebe and Robert who, in turn, become frustrated by an employee who excuses all of her provocative remarks by prefacing them with “I speak as I find”.
There’s a lot of humour to be found in these chapters. The siblings, terribly middle-class and proper, are accustomed to a certain amount of deference from the lower orders but Mandy shows none, offering insights into their personal lives that are as true to state as they are unwelcome to hear.
It’s an interesting set-up, particularly when they begin to suspect that Mandy might have baser intentions and allow their imaginations to run riot. James, it seems, has been a decent father, but never a particularly close one, spending most of their childhoods disappearing off to conferences and that mysterious land known as “abroad”. Now that he’s in his dotage, they long for him to show them the affection they’ve always been denied, but whatever warmth continues to exist in his frail body is entirely directed towards someone being paid to receive it.
However, a novelist needs to recognise her most interesting characters and allow them to shake up the story all the way to its conclusion so it’s a mistake on Moggach’s part to turn the second half of the novel over entirely to these two rather colourless siblings instead of remaining with James and Mandy, who are more energetic and interesting creations. Both Phoebe and Robert are stock characters, she drifting into her bland love affair, he drifting out of his, and it’s not difficult to see why Mandy’s arrival in James’ life has as energising an effect on him as having his nightly Horlicks laced with a shot of brandy and a quick dose of Viagra. But for the reader, the loss of their lively conversations and energetic dispositions leaves the novel in a rather dull place. And when an unexpected twist takes place halfway through, it quickly runs out of steam, leaving the reader with the longest epilogue since Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.
Moggach has written much more complex characters in the past and explored this subject with much more enthusiasm so it’s a little disappointing to say that The Carer ultimately makes for a fairly brisk read that seems unlikely to linger long in one’s mind.
John Boyne’s latest novel is My Brother’s Name is Jessica (Puffin)