Chalcot Crescent Fay Weldon

Corvus, pp.278, 16.99

Fay Weldon’s new book is told by Frances, Weldon’s imaginary sister — one she would have had if her mother had not had a miscarriage a few years after Weldon was born.

Fay Weldon’s new book is told by Frances, Weldon’s imaginary sister — one she would have had if her mother had not had a miscarriage a few years after Weldon was born. Frances steals a husband from Fay, becomes a successful novelist and finds herself in a changed world in 2013. Oh, and Frances is an unreliable narrator.

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Eighty-year-old Frances starts writing the book as bailiffs pound on her door and she hides on the stairs with her grandson. As she looks back on 50 years in Chalcot Crescent, she analyses the motley family she has collected, and as she writes, events of national importance start unfolding in the room above her.

Weldon has created a sinister world of national poverty, suspicion and hopelessness with impressive attention to detail. The Shock and the Crunch have been followed by the Squeeze, the Recovery, the Fall, the Crisis and the Bite. Food is so heavily rationed that a slightly creepy product called National Meat Loaf is the only staple. Surveillance is so pervasive that calling the police is only a matter of going into the street and shouting at cameras. So many houses have been repossessed that whole streets are empty. A firmly benign State controls everything and there is a troubling dynamic between individuals and the State.

Against this backdrop is Frances’s sprawling family, most of whom have no idea who their fathers are. The complex network of relations creates a slight untidiness of plot. We get a scene on one daughter, on another, on a lover, a husband, a grandchild and so on. Some are memories, some present-tense description and sometimes Frances, the old novelist, yields to the temptation to practise her art and writes overt fiction. The helplessness of old age and the timelessness of the pain Frances has picked up on the way are poignant. Moving in and out of time zones is a good way to evoke this, but it comes at the expense of momentum.

Chalcot Crescent is supposed to be a tale of suspense encased in a shrewd study of family relationships. Weldon is often a master of describing relationships. Although she doesn’t go in much for depth of character, she mixes drama and analysis in proportions that make reading her books as enjoyable as a few hours of gossiping. But in Chalcot Crescent the players are very lightly sketched, partly because there are too many of them, and partly by design, as the octogenarian tries to understand her family and work out if she’s being senile or insightful. Merging a study of human motivation into a mystery has left both elements a little flat.

But perhaps that’s the fault of a government interrogator we’re introduced to in the last pages: ‘The interrogator has studied the first draft of this memoir/fiction/diary. He is full of helpful suggestions.’ Chalcot Crescent is the second draft. Uh oh.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Fiction, History, Mortality, Personal debt