People who’ve read Justin Cartwright’s previous novels possibly won’t be too startled at what they find in his new one. The main character is a clever, well-read media man of about Cartwright’s age, who lives in London but ends up feeling the tug of a more primal culture — in this case by clearing off to the Kalahari for six months. His thoughts are conveyed in a quietly glittering, often aphoristic prose. The book ponders the big questions of love, religion and the nature of the self, while also scrutinising such less abstract social phenomena as rap videos and lobster sandwiches.
When the novel opens, David Cross, a former TV anchor and foreign correspondent in his early sixties, is adjusting to life as a widower. Among his guilty secrets, though, is that he’s happier than when his wife was alive. He doesn’t seem too upset either that the world is passing to another generation, leaving him and his friends to fade ‘like frescos in unvisited churches’. On the contrary: he’s rather enjoying the freedom that comes with being ‘genuinely not interested in what most people say most of the time’.
But, of course, this sense of acceptance never means that David’s feelings go unexamined. In fact, for a book which regularly suggests that there’s no such thing as a true self, To Heaven by Water does spend a lot of time wondering where it might be found. ‘Why are you always trying to analyse everything?’ somebody asks David at one point. His response is to analyse why she’s asking — although the obvious answer is surely, ‘Because I’m the protagonist in a Justin Cartwright novel’.
Happily, such careful analysis remains one of Cartwright’s greatest strengths. Here, he scores several direct hits on how families work, managing the tricky feat of being neither cynical nor dewy-eyed about them. He’s equally good on the peculiarity and power of long-standing friendships, as well as serving up endlessly sharp observations on everything from the career of Richard Burton to the mistaken belief of politicians that we want them to change things. (‘What [they] don’t understand is that a lot of the electorate want them to put things back how they were.’) In his calm way, he’s also winningly fearless at recording people’s more ignoble thoughts. I’m not sure, for example, what Mrs Cartwright will make of the assertion that almost everybody thinks ‘they have been diminished by marriage’.
And, as it turns out, David is not the only character who embodies the central idea that ‘all of us believe … our lives could have been better or different’. His son Ed is reluctantly becoming a successful lawyer, worrying about his wife’s failure to get pregnant and experimenting with adultery. Meanwhile, even by Cartwright standards, daughter Lucy has a bad case of uncertainty about who she really is.
The result, as ever, is a high-class piece of literary entertainment — but this time with one distinctly odd feature. A few elements of the plot (and one undisclosable element above all) could come straight from a particularly juicy soap opera. Here, however, they’re so free of consequences that they barely ruffle the surface of the novel’s deeply civilised investigation into the business of being human — or at least of being an intelligent middle-class human in contemporary Britain. Admittedly, Cartwright’s fans probably wouldn’t want any more ruffling than we get. Yet, even the keenest might well finish the book with a sigh of satisfaction — only to find themselves an hour or so later suddenly exclaiming ‘Hold on a minute…’