18 March 2009

The Possession of Mr. Cave

The Possession of Mr. Cave: A Novel rating: 4 of 5 stars
The very first book I reviewed for Watermark, last March 13, was Matt Haig’s The Labrador Pact. (btw, anybody else notice that best-seller The Art of Racing in the Rain, which came out months later, has nigh the same plot as The Labrador Pact? Although from perusal of online reviews, as is typical for an American shall-we-say-retelling of a British original, “Racing in the Rain” appears to have a happy ending.)

So I think it’s appropriate, a year later (I know! A whole year! It’s like I’m some kind of grownup who can hold down a job!), that I review Haig’s third novel, The Possession of Mr. Cave. While Possession is narrated by the eponymous Terence Cave rather than a noble Lab, it participates in many of the same themes as the previous novel: the risks of good intentions. The unraveling of families. The desperate sacrifices of love. (I suspect Haig’s first book, The Dead Fathers Club, being a retelling of “Hamlet,” does the same.)

The Possession of Mr. Cave begins “as life begins, with the sound of screaming.” Cave’s fifteen-year-old son Reuben, showing off for a crowd by hanging from a lamppost, falls to his death. Cave, already a widower, is left alone with Reuben’s twin sister, Bryony. His redoubled desire to protect the child who was always his favorite leads him slowly from ordinary paternal regulations to increasing paranoia, as he begins to follow her when she goes out, eavesdrop on her conversations. When he discovers she’s begun seeing a boy named Denny who was present at Reuben’s accident, he turns draconian, confining Bryony to her room outside school hours. Then, he begins to believe Reuben’s angry spirit is working through him to strike at his father through his sister, revenge for a life of neglect, and Cave’s mind becomes a struggle between defending and attacking his daughter, and himself.

Eventually, in heartbreaking flashback, we learn the truth of why Cave has never liked his son, and the connection his wife’s death bears with Denny. Still, even at Cave’s most irrational, he remains sympathetic in his terror at his offspring’s penchant for self-destruction. The first-person narration’s loss of control plunges the reader into the chilling inexorability of a madness that, at every step, seems perfectly reasonable.

(Utterly distracting aside: the cover for the American edition is hideous, all poorly drawn silhouettes. I'm thinking of printing out the jpg of the British version (all moody, with a lamppost prominent) and gluing it onto my galley.)

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