Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Witch of Exmoor, by Margaret Drabble. Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1996

‘The Witch of Exmoor’ begins with the adult children of Frieda Haxby Palmer having a weekend together for the purpose of deciding what to do about their mother. She has, they feel, lost her mind or gone senile. The problem is, there is not one sign that she is incompetent, except by the standards of her upper middle class, consumerist children. What they call signs of a failing mind are selling the house they grew up in, suing the government over tax issues, making a public investigation and scene over a manufacturer of over processed foods, and moving to a rambling, falling apart white elephant on the coast far from ‘civilization’. And embarrassing them in the process of all that. That’s the worst; the embarrassment and the worries over what she might be doing with their future inheritance. Frieda doesn’t care what they think; she’s never been an attentive mother; when they were young, she was busy writing and earning a living, now they mostly bore her so she doesn’t bother with them. The only family members she cares to interact with are her son-in-law, who believes in social activism, and his son, who is bright and curious and has so far avoided becoming average. Her children feel she is a monster because of her past and current inattentiveness. They really have no idea how she spends her days and who her friends are.

The characters are close to caricatures:  the moral-less lawyer, the good wife who hides concerns in a Martha Stewart existence, the bad child (drugs), the good child (does what her family wants), the poor man who has no chance at an equitable life because of the circumstances of his birth, etc. Frieda is the character who is best filled out; she is like a 1960s hippie and feminist who has grown into old age with her values intact; we find more and more about her as the book goes on, like peeling an onion.

The book is really less a family novel (although it is that) than it is a social commentary that is as apt today as it was in 1996. Britain is still trying to figure out how to fix the NHS, human rights are still being trampled everywhere. Corporations are still soulless entities who will do anything for a profit.

I really enjoyed this book. I wanted to know more about Frieda; she’s a woman with a sense of adventure, one whom I would like to sit down and have a drink and a good conversation with. She’s a real person in a cardboard world. 

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