Saturday 26 October 2019

A dislikable protagonist is no barrier to a good book

I would never be gratuitously mean or violent, [-] but then nor would I ever put up with anybody or any situation that made life unbearable [-]. I would be honest and reasonable, generous where generosity was due, and I would always always choose the road that led to a happy, healthy, normal life.
So says George Crawley, whose missionary father had been murdered for his faith. In Tim Parks's Goodness, George and his sister Peggy return home with their mother, whose "one thing I regret in my life is the words they made me speak" before they killed her husband.

George narrates his story in two parts: Before Hilary, and Hilary. In the first half he looks back on his childhood and early married life, when he firmly stuck to his own moral code. He is quite a dislikable character, self-centred and unable to empathise with others, convinced he knows best, and blaming his own problems on the faith-based ethics of others.

He's disappointed that his mother "could never marry a man who had broken a solemn vow to someone else," thus depriving her son of a new father. He believes his sister Peggy, unmarried and pregnant, was "erring in sentimentality and romanticism," and "refusing to look long and hard at future reality, future practicality," in happily refusing an abortion. He never quite understands his wife Shirley, never asks the right questions because they might elicit the wrong answers for him and his chosen way of life.

In the second half of the book we see George in a different light, his life turned on its head with the birth of his severely disabled daughter Hilary. He struggles against the hand that life has dealt him, whereas his mother, wife and sister just "get on with things, that's life."

A dislikable protagonist is not a barrier to a good book, and just as Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal by Zoƫ Heller was fascinating in her dislikability, so is George Crawley. The ending didn't suit me, but that's a personal preference and won't stop me reading more of Tim Parks's stories.

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