A very late Xmas book entry – but there is a reason I am posting it today. Read on to find out…
The Long Shadow by Celia Fremlinpublished 1975
Christmas in the House of Mourning: Edith, with many meaning looks, sympathy firing on all cylinders, brought in a pot of white hyacinths, but only because there were no such things as black ones. Imogen thanked her nervously, and waited to see from which direction the next assault would be launched.
“A Quiet Christmas” everyone had earnestly agreed—and you could see them, as they spoke, working out just how much it would save, and what they could do with the money. No presents, it wouldn’t seem right, Yippee! And now, after all that, here they were, one after the other, twitching packages guiltily from behind their backs and shoving them at her as if they were dirty postcards. Soap. Bath salts. Writing-paper. All the things that a widow might reasonably be expected still to have some use for. And because they’d promised not to give her anything, and were breaking the promise, she had to be extra grateful and thank them twice, once for the present and once for the betrayal.
But one of the betrayals—Cynthia’s—was a magnificent one: a brilliantly expensive Kaftan, covered in gold embroidery, and glitteringly unsuitable for anything except the kind of parties that Imogen would never be going to again. It would have been all right for the kind of parties she sometimes used to go to with Ivor; and he would have liked her to wear a thing like this. Would have liked it, that is, all the while she remained at his side, manifestly his possession; but on the other hand, he hated her to remain at his side at parties: it cramped his style with the beautiful wives of important husbands….
“Beautiful,” said Dot, disapproving. It wasn’t that she was shocked, exactly, or disliked the garment in itself: it was just that she could see at a glance that no good would come of it. Some women have this gift.
comments: Celia Fremlin’s domestic suspense thrillers are unbeatable: first of all, she is the queen of observation, of dialogue and arguments and the way in which people get on each other’s nerves. So the setup here is that newly-widowed Imogen is forced to host a bizarre houseparty of her dead husband’s relations, including an ex-wife. Each of the guests is distinct, and beautifully described in a few words, and hilariously horrible. The reader is delighted and appalled as Imogen says:
They’d come for Christmas, and now here they were on—what was it?—January 11th, and still not a word about leaving.Emphasis mine: JANUARY 11TH !! IKR?
And at the same time, Fremlin is the mistress of building up disquiet and suspense. What on earth is going on in this house? There’s enough oddballs anyway, but there are odd inexplicable events: and someone is accusing Imogen of having had a hand in her husband’s death. There is an almost supernatural air to some of the incidents: the book is truly creepy at times. But then she lightens up with a moment such as Imogen’s method of ending Dot’s sulks:
[She offered] to take the boys out for the afternoon; thus putting Dot into the position of having either to abandon her sulks and display reasonable gratitude, or else of continuing her sulks and foregoing an afternoon without her children. Every man has his price, and the same is true of mothers. The prospect of getting rid of their children for even an hour or two during the school holidays is like the offer of gin to an alcoholic: capitulation is certain.And there is even that Clothes in Books favourite, a bedjacket:
This morning—as is so often the privilege of the one who has caused all the trouble—[Cynthia] was having breakfast in bed. In her pink lacy bedjacket, and with her fluff of pale hair all anyhow, she looked like a bruised child.
I didn’t realize this was a Christmas book when I started it: that was a huge added bonus. It is the perfect holiday read, and will make you realize that you are getting off lightly, however annoying your Christmas guests are. (They have all gone home now? Haven’t they?)
You can find more Celia Fremlin, and more bedjackets, on the blog by clicking on the labels below.