Monday, July 3, 2023

Uncle Paul - Celia Fremlin

It looks like Celia Fremlin's moment for a revival has finally arrived - 'Uncle Paul' isn't the first attempt that Faber & Faber have made; The Long Shadow and the Hours Before Dawn are also available though I managed to miss these promising-sounding reprints back in 2017 and 18 respectively. It does at least mean that I've got more to look forward to now.

Uncle Paul is narrated from the point of view of Meg, youngest of 3 sisters. The oldest sibling is Mildred now somewhere around 40 and almost 20 years older than Meg, is half-sister to her and Isobel, she bought them up after their mother's death. She was briefly married to the Uncle Paul of the title - until he was arrested for the murder of his first wife. Now 15 years later he's due for release. 

Isabel summons her younger sister to the south coast where she's enduring a caravan holiday with her two sons and new husband to help calm Mildred who is thoroughly worked up. Meg is leaving behind a promising love affair in London for the doubtful pleasures of a family beach holiday, and arrives to find that Isabel is possibly in more of a state than Mildred, with something seemingly very wrong between her and her husband.

The strong points here are firstly in the relationships between the sisters, Meg who is young, carefree, and pretty. Isabel, exhausted by balancing the needs of 2 young children against those of her older husband - a man who has spent most of his life in the army and is ill at ease with the disorder she creates and young children. Then there's Mildred, now married to a rich if inattentive man, a little bored, highly strung, and aware that she's aging. All three women have a reckoning to come to over Paul's fate - they all adored him, but did they betray him?

After that, there's the way Fremlin perfectly captures how awful a British caravan holiday can be, especially when it rains. How cramped everything is, the tedious games that very young children need everyone to play, the conventional civilities to be shared with neighbours, the rigidity of social structures, and how here at least for a mother it's no holiday at all. 

And finally - it's a funny book, there's a delicious streak of dark humour running all the way through it - I can't give my favorite quote as it's a spoiler, but the humour both heightens and balances the tension as the book reaches it's a conclusion with a twist I honestly didn't expect. This is a thoroughly absorbing mystery that earns its comparison to Patricia Highsmith.


  1. You've convinced me! I'm going to give this one a try. Sounds like good summer reading.