A fragility to the space between them

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year
by Sue Townsend

There may be a certain symmetry in me reading this book in one day, a day when I was off work sick in bed. I certainly found myself sympathising with main character Eva more than I might have another day.

The day that Eva’s twins leave home for university she takes to her bed and declares that she will not be leaving it again for a year. She asks her husband to use another bedroom from now on. So begins Townsend’s latest comical exploration of modern life. Compared with her other books, this is slightly less about Britain and slightly more about people and coping. But it’s as ever an insightful study of society and humanity.

“Alexander said, ‘I would hate to be you, man. Your heart must look like them ugly pickled walnuts they sell at Christmas. Naasty tings!’
‘I’m one of the most compassionate men I know,’ said Brian…’And if you think that by affecting a West Indian patois I will be intimidated by you, you’re wrong. I’ve got a pal called Azizi – he’s African, but he’s a good chap.’
Alexander queried, ‘But he’s a good chap?'”

Eva is surprisingly sympathetic considering how incredibly self-indulgent her actions are. Even as she is demanding that her sick, elderly mother and mother-in-law take their turns bringing her food and drink, she is so astutely examining herself, asking “the big questions” and paying attention to the rest of the world (ironically, as she has now separated herself from it) that she is difficult to dislike.

Townsend combines the comic and the serious to great effect:

“Ruby said, ‘Look, I’m not getting into another argument about God. All I know is that he looks after me…’
Eva said gently, ‘But he didn’t save you from losing your purse, tickets and passport when you were at East Midlands Airport last year, did he?’
Ruby said, ‘He can’t be everywhere, and he’s bound to be busy at peak holiday time…Do you know, Eva, sometimes I can’t wait to get to heaven. I’m tired of living down here since everything went complicated.'”

Yes, there’s a lot of he said, she said, but there are also phrases that are beautifully formed:

“There was a fragility to the space between them, as though their breath had frozen and could easily shatter if the wrong word were said.”

Sadly, I must admit that Eva is the only character who isn’t a little bit of a caricature. When her astrophysicist husband is introduced he seems quiet and loving and I was hopeful that this would also be an acute examination of marriage/love but it is not. He turns out to be a bit of a joke figure and there is little love between them. Similarly the hyper-intelligent twin children are slightly cliched. But there are a lot of characters in this book who all have a role to play in Eva’s search for answers so perhaps it’s best that they are not all as complex and real as she is.

In some ways this books reminded me of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – both books take an ordinary person who becomes a temporary celebrity for an odd reason, who becomes the unlikely focus of admirers and newspaper stories and Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags and is disconcerted by this. I suppose it’s a comment on modern life and celebrity and society, but I found it a little hard to believe that people would really get caught up by the story of a woman who decided to take to her bed (though there is a little more to it than that).

Of course, what this book does have in spades is humour. I laughed out loud time and again. It was a real tonic for a bad day and an interesting, perhaps not complete change but certainly slight deviation in focus for Townsend.

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published 2012 by Penguin.