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Gleeful farce of the deepest, darkest order
Melissa McClements

by Joseph Connolly
Faber & Faber 12.99, 495 pages

Burning crucifixes, whipwielding nuns and rapist priests are not the usual stuff of farce -- generally a custard-pie-in-the-face kind of affair. But the latest novel from Joseph Connolly, Love is Strange, is a farce of the very blackest kind -- and one that the new Pope will be unlikely to select as bed time reading. Connolly is best known for his comic novels, including It Can't Go On, although he is also the author of Modern First Editions, the standard work on book collecting, and a biography of P.G. Wodehouse. His humour turned towards the theological dark side with his last novel The Works, in which an earthly utopia goes horribly wrong. But Love is Strange takes this murky trend much further.
The narrative gets under way slowly, with the dark, anti-Catholic depravity at its core hidden under a cloak of middle class domesticity. The novel is written as a series of interwoven monologues from the four members of the Coyle family in 1950s London: Gillian Coyle, a slightly neurotic housewife in love with her new Singer sewing machine; Arthur Coyle, her pontificating husband; their daughter Annette, who is struggling to conform in a strict convent school, and their eight-year-old, happy-go-lucky son Clifford. There is much situational comedy - beautifully exemplified in the scene in which a drunken Arthur arrives late at a dinner he insisted Gillian cook for his boss. The uproar is added to by Annette's bletherings about how she once believed herself to be the Holy Ghost, the arrival of a nosy neighbour and the boss tripping over the doorstep. The characterisation too reflects the traditional demands of farce; it is strong and even bordering on caricature. Connolly defines each of the four Coyle voices so clearly that the story moves easily between their differing perspectives.
Nearly the entire first half of the novel describes the apparent normality of Coyle family life -- including great contemporary detail, such as Clifford's collection of cards and plastic toys from cereal and tea packets. But, while Gillian makes jellies and Clifford puts off doing his homework, all is not well. With a taste for prostitutes, gambling and whisky, Arthur is far from the upstanding lawyer's clerk he seems to be. Worse still, his relationship with his daughter -- already emotionally confused by the angry brand of Catholicism forced on her by the nuns at school -- is deeply unhealthy. The legacy of Arthur's abuse of Annette, and Gillian's inability to face up to it, is that the family's moral values are destroyed forever.
It is Arthur's death, when he falls off the roof trying to fix the family's new TV ariel, which provides the turning point in the narrative. After he has been splattered over the patio, the story spirals away from the cosy suburbia of the first 250 pages, through the liberalisation of swinging London in the 1960s and on to the darkness of the Coyle family's modern life and the three remaining members' predilection for incest, prostitution, extortion, murder and blackmail. Like latter day mobsters organised by enraged women, they become the polar opposite of the patriarchal, nuclear family they appeared to be at the outset.
Indeed, there is a strong influence of 1940s and 1950s cinematic melodrama in the novel's later stages, as characters morph into evil villains with no redeeming qualities and the tone becomes borderline hysterical.
Gillian's transformation from uptight, trivia-obsessed home-maker into wild-eyed matriarch with a knack for scheming and extreme violence is the most unnerving of all. That said, her utter craziness and difference from her earlier self provide some laugh-out-loud moments. Love is Strange is farce of the deepest, darkest order. It is also a melodramatic morality tale, exposing the decay beneath the comfortable respectability of a family's life. Not a read for the faint hearted or for die-hard followers of Rome, it sends nostalgic chintz down in gleeful, satanic flames.
Under syndication arrangement with FE