Sex and Tupperware
The Sea House
Esther Freud Hamish Hamilton, 288pp, £14.99
There's something irresistible about the idea of the great-granddaughter of psychoanalysis featuring a shrink in her novel. Has the author inherited an infallible nose for neuroses? Ironically, Freud seems just as bemused by analysis as the rest of us.
The twin subjects of the Freud dynasty, art and psychology, prop up this story, and none too convincingly, either. We start in 1953. "Gertrude Jilks, a child psychoanalyst, a woman with no children of her own", has arranged to receive a house guest, Max, a deaf painter. By the third paragraph, he has taken three connecting trains to reach the village of Steerborough, but on arrival remembers "with a pang that she disliked him". This may be so, but after a few chapters Gertrude will happily discuss "the power of soiling, how some children use it as a tool", as Max nervously fingers poppies in the garden.
This is a long novel. There follows chapter upon chapter of village detail, not so much carefully evoked as slapped down unwrapped on a parish plate. Struggling to emerge from beneath the mound of "pastry, sauce, chicken, custard [and] fruit" served up at a typical dinner is a plot of sorts. This cuts between Max and his circle in the 1950s and a present-day narrative.
Lily, the flimsy heroine of the contemporary storyline, is escaping the steel- and-brick metropolitan loft she shares with her cellphone-toting boyfriend, Nick. Curled up in a rented cottage, she reads love letters written in the 1930s by Lehmann, a German architect. These make her regret the lack of commitment in her own life; Nick scarcely takes her calls, let alone send passionate handwritten missives across Europe. A desultory fling follows with Grae, the stubbly, handy village charmer who may or may not be a wife-beater. This doesn't stop Lily from melting whenever he appears carrying a Mr Whippy.
Intercut with this are the breathless Tupperware gatherings of Gertrude, Max, Lehmann and Lehmann's staggeringly beautiful wife, Elsa. Guess who falls for Elsa across a crowded lawn? (It's not Gertrude, though it might have been interesting to have some sapphism among the scone set.) If that seems far-fetched, consider the furore that ensues when Gertrude inadvertently stumbles upon her sleeping house guest: "Max's penis danced before her. The head of it, the dance of its oval eye." This is a truly astonishing experience for her and us, compounded by Gertrude's heated emotions later as she recalls "the surprise of hair and testicles".
Perhaps this is a comedy? To be fair, there are a few penetrating insights: Gertrude, speculating about Hitler, wonders if he "had consulted a psychologist or if he had simply known that if you put a person in pyjamas you turned them into children and had them doubly in your power".
Freud's previous work is distinguished by her convincing young characters. Hideous Kinky and The Wild were seen through the eyes of wise children; Peerless Flats and Gaglow were told from adolescent perspectives. This novel, reliant on adult voices, flounders. The best sections are the architect's letters, based on real letters by Freud's grandfather. These have a poetic quality that the surrounding sections do not begin to match.
The invented characters act without motivation, morality or enthusiasm. They don't leap from the pages so much as squelch about blankly in syntactically bizarre paragraphs. Even the hot flashes of desire that Lily experiences for Grae, and her subsequent rolls in the dunes with him, take place without reflection or significant reappraisal of Nick. Ambivalence is absent. Freud has written and will write much better books than this.