My first introduction to Fay Weldon was Puffball way back in 1980. We were well into second-wave feminism and Weldon’s witty take on exploitative relationships wrapped in elements of a sort of magic realism, had a great impact on me. But when I look at how much of Weldon’s prolific output I’ve actually read it over the years (that I can remember) it adds up to only six novels in all, including: The Life and Loves of a She Devil 1983, The Cloning of Joanna May 1990, Growing Rich 1992 and The Bulgari Connection 2001. Weldon has written over thirty books.
I thoroughly enjoyed Chalcot Crescent but it reminded me how strong Weldon’s voice is; she’s opinionated and she’s going to tell you exactly what she thinks. That’s probably why I can only read one or two of her novels every ten years. Her outspokenness has got her into trouble over the years – I recall she made some comments on immigration that caused a stir and, recently, she put the cat amongst the pigeons by saying women should pick up men’s socks. Her argument was probably that it’s not worth the effort of trying to get men to change their bad habits, but it’s not surprising the remarks were jumped on.
Luckily, Weldon has the vehicle of novels to convey her (more nuanced) ideas. The narrator of Chalcot Crescent, a dystopian novel set in a near future (2013) Britain, is an 80 year old woman, Frances, whose reminiscences closely resemble the life story of Weldon herself. I’m sure Weldon doesn’t give a toss whether we think the narrator is Weldon or not. In fact she has a lot of fun in the book playing with the idea of whether memory is reality, or whether a narrator’s version of things is truth or not. The book itself is a manuscript the narrator is compiling on her laptop for posterity consisting of revisiting things past, relating what’s currently happening, and ‘fictional’ accounts of things that might or might not be occurring in the lives of those around her. She’s housebound in her crumbling terrace, so she has no choice but to make these bits up.
Weldon also has a lot of fun portraying the ramifications of left-leaning ‘nanny state’ governments and the financial crisis, taken to the extreme. In her dystopia, Britain is running out of food and fuel, and a National Unity Government (NUG) is taking over every aspect of life, including providing a national meatloaf rumoured to be created in vats from stem cell-created flesh (which, Frances says, tastes remarkably good).
Holed up in her house with the electricity out and bailiffs at her door, Frances ponders her complicated past of lovers and children, plus what might or might not be going on with NUG. She has some inside knowledge because her son-in-law is high up in the National Institute for Food Excellence (NIFE). Yes, prior to joining NIFE he was a genetic researcher. And her grown-up grandchildren appear to be involved with Redpeace, a political offshoot of Greenpeace. The narrative is convoluted and the many stories of the family difficult to slot into place, but you go with it because Frances’ acerbic, ironic wit is so compelling. At 80, Weldon still has plenty to say about sexual and national politics and it’s well worth listening to.