Sartre tried to prove that hell is other people by locking three strangers in a room for eternity and watching them torture each other. Similarly Will Cohu seems determined to show that hell is our own families.
What is remarkable is that Cohu’s family members were not a collection of horrific monsters. On the contrary, they appear normal and often likeable people. They are almost disturbingly typical of many middle-class families with children who, like Cohu himself, were born in the 1960s. The names and places might change, but the characters and events are surprisingly familiar.
The Wolf Pit opens with an evocation of the North Yorkshire moors that is almost kitsch in its flowery prose. This transmutes into a childhood memoir of visits to the author’s grandparents, Dorothy and George, who live on the moors and seem to epitomise a child’s-eye view of the ideal relatives. Always glad to see Will, they are his nearest kin when he is sent away to board at a very minor public school, and their home is the setting for some of his fondest memories of other family members.
It is only the visible dislike George has for Cohu’s father, who is prone to drink and occasional violence, that suggests this is not the dulce domum it appears. When Will’s uncle, the loveable rogue Robert, who plays with Cohu and his brothers in a way their father never could, commits suicide, the illusion is finally shattered. Out of this it emerges that even Dorothy and George’s relationship was racked with resentment. And just as these seem to find an echo in Cohu’s own parents, so he begins to wonder whether he has inherited some of the self-loathing that destroyed Uncle Robert.
If this sets a scene of barely repressed family violence, much of the book also takes on board an existential desire to understand who we really are. To all intents and purposes this family is not abnormally dysfunctional. Rather it is normally dysfunctional, but within that structure, and particularly within the given roles of husband, wife, son, grandparent and grandson, real identities are suppressed.
After Cohu’s parents fight, they withdraw for the day to the bedroom, in a grim parody of kiss and make up that smoothes over the chronic problems in their relationship. Notably, those problems extend beyond the family, and find echoes in their neighbours. In a comment that could just as easily have applied to his own father, Cohu writes of their neighbour, the alcholic Dennis Gray: ‘Crying and apologising made him feel better, but did not make him change.’
In the background to this self-analysis lies the scenery of Yorkshire. As in Wuthering Heights, it reflects the emotions of the characters in Cohu’s book, which he tellingly subtitles ‘A Moorland Romance’, despite it being a memoir. But while Emily Brontë had the landscape boil with the passions of Heathcliff and Cathy, the middle-class repression of Will Cohu’s relatives finds a gentler and ultimately less overt counterpart in nature.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 19, 2012Tags: Book review, Memoir, Non-fiction