"Dick and Lily have been married for fifty years, and Lily finally believes that marriage is like an old tune you take for granted but find yourself whistling when you're happy. Until the night she wakes to find her husband's pyjamaed bottom poking out from under the bed. He claims there's an intruder and he's got him in his sights. When she turns on the light he backs out, holding a shotgun. 'Bugger got away when you created a diversion,' he says. The comic incident marks the start of Dick's terrifying plunge into insanity. He enters a world of imaginary enemies, fantastic opportunities, and sexual rivals. For an old-fashioned wife who accepted her partner for better or worse, there is nowhere left to turn except to her only daughter. Ruth, who has turned her back on emotional commitment in favour of good sex with good friends, is now forced to penetrate the conspiratorial and chaotic web of her parents' marriage."
Elizabeth Taylor’s novella Blaming - posthumously published in 1976 - gave a terrifying insight into the life of those left behind when a spouse dies. Perhaps even more striking than the sudden death of Amy’s husband in this story, however, is the horrifying descent towards life’s end as experienced by Lily's husband Dick in Clare Boylan's Beloved Stranger, set in Ireland and published a little over twenty years later.
Despite a slow start to this ultimately readable novel, Boylan manages to deftly balance Dick’s dementia not only from his viewpoint but also from the receiving end of wannabe feminist Lily and their put-upon daughter Ruth. This, in turn, is interwoven skilfully with the subplot of Ruth’s own life, in which she tries to overcompensate for her parents’ suffocating relationship by choosing short-term sexual liaisons instead of long-term commitment, and focusing on her career and personal independence. These multiple plot lines allow the pace to be successfully controlled, and are dexterously decorated with carefully chosen similes and beautiful imagery.
Although the final months of Dick’s life are naturally of interest to the reader given his erratic behaviour and the reactions to this by others, we are equally interested in what appears to be a tale of identity: Lily is chasing her real self through old photographs and feminist tracts, while Ruth tries to do the same by grieving for the relationship that she wanted (but never had) with her parents, and by chasing a potential non-starter of a new relationship of her own. These evolutions also track generational differences and ensure that there will be something to resonate with every reader, or for every reader to react against.
Beloved Stranger also reiterates, in a non-religious way, the message that death is not necessarily the end, as indicated by the last line of the story, which is spoken by Lily. This makes the reader wonder if Ruth – and, indeed, Lily herself, as well as other family members - can ever truly escape Dick's influence, adding an even slightly sinister meaning to the 'Beloved' of the book’s title.
However, an equally disquieting theme that is not fully addressed by Beloved Stranger is the notion that even the most beloved will eventually become strangers. While this is partly achieved by some due to their dementia, it is a sad truth that most of us, in three generations, will be forgotten by our descendants, no matter how much we are loved. Beloved Stranger is perhaps, as well as being a thought-provoking work that shows how far Boylan ought to be better-known, therefore also a call to all of us to ensure, as far as possible, that those we love never do become strangers.
other novels by Clare Boylan
Holy Pictures (1983)
Last Resorts (1984)
Black Baby (1988)
Home Rule (1992)
Room for a Single Lady (1997)
Emma Brown (2003)