Drudgery of being a 20th century chatelaine


THIS novel has first and foremost to do with personal identity the personal identity of Eileen O'Neill from Belfast who is transformed into Helene Bourjois, Madame Helene Bourjois of Plouchen, Brittany, and the personal identities of her tenants and neighbours, her servants, her spouse and her friends.

Helene's identity crisis did not begin with the change of her name, however, for her childhood was such a labyrinth of loss and confusion that even before she met her husband, Jean Hubert Bourjois, she had no sense of person, place or purpose.

When she was an infant, her "drunken daddy" snuggled up in a pal's van at closing time only to wake up to die due to using his pal's primed bomb as a pillow.

In order to train as a teacher in London, Eileen's young mother Margaret (later to become Marguerite) pawned the child off on the generous peasant, Anny. At the age of 10, the poor kid was duly collected by her mother and her aging dry stick step father neither of whom she knew from Eve or Adam.

Slowly, but systematically, they crushed her childhood they told her the truth of her father's death, they denied her the existence of Santa (how could they?) and they all but denied her the existence of Christ.

As an adolescent in the late 1960s, she skived off to Amsterdam in search of an alternative existence and there, among "the mild eyed melancholy lotus eaters", she met the bearded Jean Hubert with "the perfect courtesy that came of 12 centuries of unsullied descent from Charlemagne".

They married, had twins, and inherited Uncle Vladimir's Plouchen chateau (all ex hippies doubtlessly wish they had it so nicely).

In their new abode, Helene gardens in her high heeled sandals and neatly pleated skirt while Jean Hubert regresses pinto some stiff ancestral armour" and constantly tries to make up for the drudgery, of being a 20th century chatelain

They furnish the ancestral home with "nice solid pieces of modern pine furniture from the Trois Suisses catalogue" and idly watch their children grow into contemptuous and uncomprehending creeps.

While Jean Hubert relies on his property for his sense of self, Helene relies on memories for hers. She becomes particularly obsessed with Christopher Milton, a would be lover from her Belfast days.

She determines to seek him out in order to see what things could have been. But Helene also has a number of other unresolved conflicts. Christopher serves only as a catalyst.

Their tenants and friends are also engaged in a search for identity, something which evades them until they are able to recognise their subservience to its enduring feudal hierarchy.

There is "no nonsense about equality and fraternity in Plouchen". It is a town of glaring contrasts and self righteous alienation its populace speaks in nice warm accepting cliches" which only thinly disguise its racist, xenophobia foundations.

This second novel from Briege Duffaud is far more ambitious than her first. In A Long Stem Rose, she provides a poignant portrayal of societal and personal vapidity in the late 20th century. However the novel is decidedly over populated.

Characters which have absolutely no function in Helenes search for sell hood crop up and disappear, and those that do have a function very often which detracts from the issue of the central character.

The narrative structure is also overly entangled. Duffaud relies heavily on flashbacks and scene transitions but their frequency makes for a cumbersome busyness.

Perhaps it could be argued that the novel's convoluted structure is intended to parallel the comings and goings in its central character's consciousness as well as those in Plouchen, but that would be pushing the issue too far.

Another (forgive me) complaint is Duffaud's penchant for unfinished statements in dialogue.

What is otherwise a truly lovely story is sadly and unnecessarily sullied in these respects.