Review: The White Family By Maggie Gee Essay, Research Paper
Too close to home The White Family Maggie Gee 420pp, Saqi Books ‘How does it feel to be a problem?” James Baldwin was once asked. Maggie Gee’s eighth novel deftly inverts the question, exploring the “problem” of race as it originates and festers in the minds of present-day white Britons. Touted as the most provocative contender on this year’s Orange Prize shortlist, The White Family is an audacious, groundbreaking condition-of-England novel that delves for the roots of xenophobic hatred and violence in the English hearth. Alfred White is the keeper of Albion Park. An army veteran, he has mounted a 50-year campaign to enforce park rules, keep order and “hold the fort”. If it were left to him, the park in Hillesden Rise – a fictitious part of London reminiscent of Willesden or Hackney – would have stricter rules: “This was England. If in doubt, keep them out.” Even the arrival of brightly plumed “yellow foreign birds” is unwelcome. When Alfred has an “event” – an apparent stroke that turns out to be cancer – he and his wife, May, find their divided family at his hospital bedside. Darren is the “golden boy” journalist who files columns from the US but has two broken marriages and a bulimic third wife. Shirley, who appalled her family by marrying a Ghanaian lecturer, is now widowed and has taken up with a West Indian social worker, Elroy. Dirk, a skinhead stagnating behind the counter of a newsagent, is the graver family embarrassment, unable to contain his hatred of “coloureds”, old people and women. While Alfred idolises his eldest son, Darren, it is Dirk who hangs on his words, seemingly his true heir. Other characters include Darren’s schoolfriend Thomas, a librarian and would-be writer; Melissa, the teacher he fancies; George, coughing his lungs out in his shop but loath to sell it to Asians; Elroy’s brother Winston, cottaging in the park gents but unable to admit he is gay in a community that abhors “batty boys” (”It was as if they thought only white men did it”). The perspective is insistently that of the white characters, whose inner voices are given free rein. Dirk is angry that there are “no opportunities for the native English”; that “we have to stay open late because the frigging Pakis do”. Alfred’s is more an idealised nostalgia: “There weren’t any coloureds when I was a kid. It was just a normal part of London. We were all the same. We were all one. No one was rich. We stuck together.” The illusion of “sticking together” as a family gives way to revelations about Alfred’s beatings, the child Shirley was forced to give up for adoption and the repressed homoerotic source of Dirk’s hatred of black men. Dirk’s portrayal approaches parody. There was “something jerky about his walk, as if he was butting a low brick wall. As if this habit had injured his brain.” Yet, as Shirley puts it, “Sometimes he seemed comic, like a bad cartoon . . . But all that anger. All that pain.” He is a casualty, at first sight, of his father’s opinions, but in reality of Alfred’s despotic violence towards his family. The novel’s inexorable violence is mirrored in Shirley’s apocalyptic vision of the priest as führer smiling over black corpses in Elroy’s church. If the climax is unsurprising, its resolution involves a twist. While the damaged Dirk may be a scapegoat in the true sense, other characters prove capable of growth. Gee gives them space with neither posturing condemnation nor condescension. They, though not their views, have authorial sympathy. The novel tilts expertly at a middle-class fallacy that racism is something “out there”, in the football terraces or the sink estates; its genteel manifestations are insistently explored. Those who imagine themselves to be liberal are constantly wrong-footed for their casual assumptions: May thinks she is being mugged by a man trying to help her; Thomas imagines the large man borrowing One Hundred Years of Lynchings is out for revenge, only to discover he is researching a PhD on Baldwin. People are characterised by what, or how much, they read. Yet just as there is no given correlation between class and racist views, there is none between literacy and enlightenment. Dirk manages only computer mags and his fascist rag Spearhead . Yet May, a voracious reader, turns out to be as fallible. Shirley, the character who “crosses the river”, reconstituting an alternative to the defunct White family, remarks: “Mum thinks she’s broadminded but she’s as bad as [Dirk].” May proves ready to circle the wagons, appealing to Alfred’s baser instincts to protect her brood. Alfred is a surprise, rejecting the way his family sees him (he loathes his daughter’s placatory gift of a John Bull figurine), just as he secretly dislikes playing the tyrant. Faced with death, he softens towards the “coloured” nurses, and recognises that he hates the exotic birds in his park “because they’re afraid of me”. Through Alfred, the novel ultimately affirms values traditionally claimed – though often betrayed – as Britain’s own: justice and fair play. The novel is as telling about class mobility and urban decline or gentrification. It shows working-class parents patronised by their smug, upwardly mobile offspring. Dirk resents “loveys” like Thomas and Melissa, ordering their Guardian s in his shop – people “only here till they can afford to get out”. Through the 1980s and 1990s, Hillesden Rise has lost its jeweller, bank and chemist; only the pub and betting shop seem to thrive. Yet May realises that, with its sushi bars and pavement cafés, “Hillesden isn’t dying. It’s coming up.” The same cannot be said of the schools, the NHS or the park. Another of the novel’s achievements is the comedy and tenderness amid violence and hatred. The elderly couple “took each other’s hands like magnets, halves of a whole springing back together”. A rapprochement between Alfred and the young Shirley, distraught at losing her child, is all the more moving for his gruff awkwardness. The White Family is finely judged and compulsively readable. Its head-on scrutiny of the uglier face of fair Albion is the more impressive for its rarity in British fiction. Maggie Gee will be taking part in the Orange Prize shortlist readings at the Guardian Hay Festival on June 9.