I don’t know my husband.

The New Perspective by K Arnold Price

There is a sense in which committing to another human being is among the bravest things any of us do. What if we make a life with someone, spend irrevocable decades with them, and then discover it was a mistake? What if come middle age they suddenly have a change of heart, decide to trade us in for a younger or more successful model, or we discover that for years theyve been having an affair or had hidden some deep part of themselves?

I have a fondness for horror movies, but zombies and predatory aliens aren’t real. The true terrors of our lives are much closer to home.

The New Perspective is an 84 page novella, mostly told in the first person though occasionally in third. That first person is Pattie, married to Cormac and after 26 years together in the same house they’ve finally just seen their second son married. After decades, their home is just theirs again, their children are embarked on their own lives and Pattie and Cormac are free to just enjoy each other’s company.

Their marriage has been a strong one. They have few arguments, they are still physically attracted to each other (though sex is never directly described in the novel Pattie’s sheer desire for Cormac, undimmed over the years and children, is powerfully evoked), they don’t talk much but then they hardly seem to need to because they agree so easily.

Returning home, after the wedding of their son (“a dull boy” who “has married a dull girl” reflects Pattie, somewhat against her will) Pattie is suddenly shocked to see the home they had made for themselves over all those years. How little it now fits her:

What checks and chills me is that I come home unexpectingly, and suddenly it is not home, it is an unlikeable house stamped with mediocrity and choked with trivia.

This isn’t a home fit for their new life. It’s born of a more timid Pattie, furnished when she was young and uncertain. Now she’s a mature woman with years ahead of her. It won’t do.

They move (the novel is structured into three sections, around three homes they live in). They agree to buy their new home without even needing really to discuss it – they visit it and inspect the rooms and consider what they would do to it and without need of direct discussion know that they will buy it. Once there they begin to transform it, and it them.

Internal walls are knocked down, rooms are decorated sparingly yet tastefully, the garden is planned and planted. Pattie comes to it all with colour charts for the rooms and images of heather atop stone garden walls but the reality is frustratingly obdurate – there are too many choices of colour and each changes its appearance as the day progresses, heather won’t grow where she wills it to – but in the end it is done and it is beautiful.

This quote is, I think, quite heartbreaking:

At the beginning of the summer Pattie decided that they would eat Sunday morning breakfast in the courtyard when the weather was suitable. She gloats over her garden furniture. The young trees she has bought are still very young but the tubs they stand in are freshly painted and look very nice. One bright Sunday morning when the sun is dazzling on the white walls and the white table, Pattie puts some of her dark crockery on the table and a bowl of fruit. She brings from the kitchen a tray containing brown bread, butter, honey and tea. Then she stands under the window of the landing and calls to Cormac. After an interval Cormac puts a tousled head out the window, smells the sharp morning air and disappears.

Pattie sits at the table and begins to eat brown bread and honey. After some minutes she hears movements in the kitchen and then domestic noises – a mile clatter of utensils and crockery. She finishes her light breakfast and walks into the kitchen. Cormac is seated at the table in his dressing-gown with a plate of fried eggs and bacon in front of him.

It’s not a flawless piece of prose (the young trees are still very young, not sure the first “young” is needed there) but it’s immensely powerful. The scene is beautifully painted – the light, the freshness, the bread and honey. Then the noise from the kitchen and the keen disappointment. Indifference is much worse than arguments.

Pattie thought she and Cormac didn’t need to speak because they knew what each other were thinking, but what if he simply never cared that much what she was thinking? She thought they reached the same decisions without need of discussion, but what if Cormac just didn’t care about the things she decided on? She thought they were in love because they still regularly have sex, but does that necessarily follow?

Once in the new house, Cormac buys a violin and reveals that he played as a youth but had to give up due to a family crisis. He had never mentioned any of this, in all their long years together. If that, if Cormac plays the violin, what else is there in Cormac’s past that was never shared? Pattie thought their life without children would be about each other, but Cormac wants to rediscover his long-delayed love of music. Where does Pattie fit into that? She talks of wanting to learn Italian to read Dante, but nothing comes of it (really I think it’s there because of the extraordinary appositeness of the opening lines, about being in the middle of life and finding oneself lost in a dark forest with the straight path lost).

That’s a lot for 84 pages, and it’s absolutely to this novella’s credit that it packs so much in. It’s a devastating book in its way. A discovery that the heart of a marriage may be missing, may never have been there. Fiction by female authors on this sort of topic is sometimes categorised as women’s fiction, a category I find actually fairly objectionable because really what about this isn’t universal? It’s fiction which goes to the worst fears we can really face, rather than those fears which comfort us because they will never happen.

The New Perspective isn’t without flaws. Pattie is supposed to be a small town librarian in rural Ireland, and she describes herself and her husband as “ordinary” and “not intellectual”. Despite that she uses words like “parousia” (I don’t know, I’ll google it at some point), references Plato and reads Svevo and Moravia. Those feel to me more the interests of someone who is say a student and occasional scholar of modern literature and a published poet and author, which is what K Arnold Price was.

Worse, Price makes heavy use of italics for emphasis, of exclamation marks and of ellipses and the result of all these is frequently to tell the reader how to read the sentence. I found them intrusive, and given her skill unnecessary. I admit I have a particular dislike of overused exclamation marks, but it did feel like the book wasn’t giving me space to interpret it, but rather insisting on a sole authorial interpretation. A book though which is capable of only one interpretation ultimately struggles to merit rereading.

Despite those criticisms there is still a lot to recommend here and I’m grateful to Will of Just William’s Luck for alerting me to it. His review is here, and it also made his end of year list for that year. Colm Toibin, whom I hold in huge regard, is also a fan and talks about it some way down the page on this Guardian article.

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12 Comments

Filed under Irish Literature, Novellas, Price, K Arnold

12 responses to “I don’t know my husband.

  1. For its subject matter, this sounds excellent–although I have a few concerns: Pattie’s shock as she looks at her home after returning from the wedding. Shock seems too strong a term to use when you look at something for the umpteenth time and now suddenly desire. Still my concerns won’t stop me.

    Good opening intro. I seem to know so many couples who’ve gone off the deep end in middle age….

  2. desire change.. typo

  3. It is abrupt, but it convinces on the page (or did me anyway). It’s in part of course the shock of the house losing its context. It’s no longer a family home, now it’s just her’s and Cormac’s and it no longer fits.

    If you’d like my copy I’m still very happy to post it over.

  4. leroyhunter

    Sounds good Max, but most of all true. As Guy said you start to encounter actual instances of this kind of development in a relationship, rather then knowing of the situation as some kind of literary or filmic prototype. I wondered when it was published – 1980 according to the piece you link to – it’d be interesting to read as a time capsule of that time in Ireland (although it doesn’t sound like it sets out to be specifically “Irish”).

    It’s interesting what you mention about Pattie claiming to be “ordinary”, yet seeming to be equipped with interests and vocabulary that point to something different. In Ireland there has traditionally been (especially in small towns) a dreadful fear of being seen as “up yourself”, having airs & graces etc, whether based on class, money or intellect. So you would quite possibly be an erudite reader and student of the classics, but you would naturally downplay or conceal that in most situations. That rings true to me.

    I guess my point is that Pattie’s assertions of ordinariness, contrasted with the way she thinks and conveys herself to the reader, creates another level of understanding her personality. There’s a gap there – a common one, I believe – and that might make us think differently about the gap she has encountered in her mariage.

  5. Interesting thoughts on Pattie’s self-perception and the fear of seeming up yourself, thanks for that.

    I don’t have children myself, let alone grown ones, so it’s a hard situation to imagine but we all have gaps between who we are and who we may think of ourselves as being. Here, for years, their life has revolved around family. Now it revolves around them again. They’re in their late 40s so they married young (as you’d expect in 1950s Ireland which would be when they’d married) and the question naturally arises as to how well they really ever knew each other outside of the context of family life.

  6. Thanks for the offer, Max. Yes I’ll accept your generous offer.

    On a note of coincidence, I was recently talking to an acquaintance, a divorce lawyer who said that she is seeing a rather sudden upswing of divorces from people in their 50s. She said she never used to see this and now suddenly, they represent a large portion of her work. I asked why and she said she thought the economy played a role. Interesting, I thought.

    I read somewhere or another that people with empty nests often undergo a period of reformation or reinvention and that sounds applicable to the book.

  7. Excellent introduction, and very true.

    The moment children leave home, the moments you retire are difficult moments for couples, just as the birth of a first child is. These situations require a change of routine and some have more difficulties than others to adjust.

    When my first child was born, I understood why my parents are the way they are. Suddenly, someone else dictates your days, you organize your life around family life and you have no choice if you want to respect your child’s needs. But if you don’t shake habits once in a while, you’re stuck.
    When the children are away for a week, we start eating at different hours, choosing junk food, going out on week nights, changing our work schedule. When they come back, we slip into the proper timetable again. Just to tell you how children create a frame in one’s life and when they leave, the frame is off and that can be pretty unsettling, especially for a woman who doesn’t have a job.

  8. On its way to you Guy.

    The economy, and perhaps too increased health and longevity. If in your fifties you’re healthy and looking at potentially decades more life there’s time for a fresh start, or at least there’s the chance there’s time.

    Emma, Pattie is referred to by Cormac as a housewife, though she has a job. Still, she’s not the main earner certainly, and her role has been more home focussed than his so those issues do arise. Skylark in a different way addressed these issues too of course.

  9. Thanks Max. Very interested in your take on Heliopolis. Not perfect but I really liked it.

  10. I’d forgotten you’d reviewed Heliopolis Guy. I’ll have to dig that out again once I’ve written mine (not that I’ve finished yet, I’m half way through, fun read).

  11. I liked it a lot and started to wonder about other books by this author. Loved the scenes in the favela vs the swanky estates. I don’t like to read a review of a book while I’m reading the actual thing either.

  12. Max: there was a piece on ABE books about book covers during the 70s. Apparently they went for a minimalist look–very plain, case in point….

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