Whilst I Was Out by Sara Stewart
|Whilst I Was Out by Sara Stewart|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: Mark Daniel Taylor|
|Summary: Although "Whilst I Was Out" has its moments and its lead character has a familiar and frank voice, it struggles to overcome its overreliance on cliché and problems with plotting and pace. There's fun to be had here, but genuine and effective instances of humour and invention are far between.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Maybe|
|Pages: 239||Date: October 2016|
|Publisher: Pegasus Elliot Mackenzie Publishers|
|External links: Author's website|
Sara Stewart's debut novel, Whilst I Was Out, opens with all the promise of a book intent to delve head-first into invention and oddness. The narrator of the story, Alice, is stuck in traffic with her husband – who she refers to throughout the book as My Dear Husband (or MDH for short) – when he suddenly jumps out of their car and runs off for seemingly no reason. The scene opens with a mention of domestic abuse but seems much more interested in the inherent malfunction of Alice's husband as she describes his fixation with his bicycle and how her and their three children have taken a back seat to his 'finding himself' through affairs and cross-country cycling.
The moment where she is abandoned in the vehicle to apologise to the angry drivers behind her becomes the moment when Alice realises she can no longer stay with her husband. The story of Whilst I Was Out is set in motion by this revelation. Alice had experimented with other women as a teen but had been forced into heterosexuality by her over-bearing and grandchildren-hungry mother. Tired of her husband, who she not only lives but works with as part-owner of a pet food business, Alice signs up to The Guardian's soulmates dating page where she meets Anna, an older woman who Alice immediately falls in love with. As Alice gets to know Anna, however, and as she finally confronts her issues with alcoholism, she begins to wonder if her new girlfriend is really everything she claims to be.
It is upon meeting Anna that the first problem with the novel makes itself known. The book is meant to be setting up Anna as an attractive and sensuous lover whom Alice believes will whisk her away from her problems but who, as their relationship goes on, slowly reveals herself to be something more damaged and nefarious. However, this is not how Anna is introduced. She is described as creepy and off-putting: 'Instead of eyebrows, she'd had a pair of lines tattooed in their place. It gave her a look of permanent surprise.' Upon noticing her spiked hair, Alice comments that '…it was so unbelievably thin I could see right through to her scalp like one of those old dolls you see lying around at a charity shop.' The encounter is strange because we are made aware from the start that there is something not quite right about Anna. Alice tells us as soon as we meet her that she had a history of breaking up marriages which in hindsight was her first red flag. 'So big, I should have felt its strong breeze waft in my face.' But nevertheless, after this first date, the novel rests on the assumption that Alice is in love with Anna and that she finds her alluring, perfect and beautiful. We are not allowed the chance to be betrayed by Anna nor to discover her flaws on our own. This turns her into a contradiction, one that undercuts any sense of tension or romance that is established thereafter.
This absence of dramatic structure is highlighted further by the language, which is dripping with clichés and recycled phrases. Their romance is filled with terms like 'the joys of spring' and 'boggling minds' and Stewart repeatedly uses the gag: 'Before you could say…' as her go-to synonym for anything meant to communicate haste.
Not that there aren't ideas or themes here. There is a feeling of middle-class anxiety throughout the book that seems to be in the way of Anna and Alice being able to connect as they would like. Anna has the voice of a Radio 4 presenter but doesn't look like one and Alice is horrified when during a trip to France (which Alice has paid for) she sees Alice holding a knife like a pen. This is tied in with Alice's drinking. Upon buying two bottles of Baileys to drink by herself, she tells the uninterested shop assistant that they are gifts, a scene branded with a specific type of middle-class alcoholism and guilt. Anna is affected by this too and begins to claim that Anna's three children are spoiled, culminating when she tells Alice that she likes children, just not hers.
Not only does she not leave the woman who constantly insults her children, but conversely Alice looks down on Anna as someone who could stand to be more cultured. As the novel reaches its close we learn more about Anna’s past and her own issues with consumption which acts as a foil to Alice’s drinking, but the company of Anna and Alice quickly becomes repetitive and drawn out. This ultimately makes Alice unlikeable. Not that I'm against complicated characters, but I think we are meant to like Alice. The chapters are interspersed with small comic inserts that reveal some inner-working of Alice's mind. Short stories about her alcoholism or her previous lovers. These are genuinely funny and reveal the stand-up comedian Sara Stewart was before she became a writer. I found myself not only waiting for these small reliefs while I was reading but wishing the novel had the same wit and insight that they proved Stewart was capable of.
For something with a similar comic flair about dating gone wrong, you might want to try: My Dating Disasters Diary by Liz Rettig or for other stories about women stuck in a rut try: Footnotes to Sex by Mia Farlane.
You can read more book reviews or buy Whilst I Was Out by Sara Stewart at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Whilst I Was Out by Sara Stewart at Amazon.com.
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