Maggie Gee has written 14 novels including The White Family, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize). Blood, her latest, is a bizarrely misfiring black comedy. The setting is Thanet, which was the only Ukip-held council in Britain until March last year, when almost half of its councillors resigned and formed a breakaway group. The choice of Thanet is not accidental, and one’s initial hope was that this might be the first great Brexit novel.
Brexit is mentioned, but the narrative is dominated by 38-year-old ‘buxom bruiser’ Monica Ludd, an unconventional deputy head at a local secondary school, who we are repeatedly told is six foot. While being a tall woman doesn’t seem weird in itself, Monica, with her caterpillar eyebrows, is painted as something of a grotesque, who wonders whether she has Neanderthal genes and says: ‘Male eyes feast upon my breasts.’ She also seems to be much taken with her own vulgarity, and one can’t help but feel sympathy for her lampooned younger sister Fairy who ‘shrank from familial crudeness’ after Monica suggests that their mother might have ‘wee-ed’ someone to death.
It is hard to know exactly what Gee is aiming at. Monica pays a visit to her father, a dentist called Albert, with an axe, shortly before he is found covered in blood. She certainly appears to have the motivation to attempt murder, holding him responsible for the death of her younger brother Fred, whom he bullied to join the army. Fred has died in Afghanistan, and it is after Albert’s failure to attend a memorial party for his son that he is found battered. At least the mystery surrounding the attack provides a degree of intrigue.
Gee’s prose is never less than lively and is sometimes borderline manic. The biographer Lyndall Gordon describes Blood as ‘wonderfully, startlingly unlike any novel I’ve ever read’. And it’s true: the originality of the narrative can’t be faulted. But it’s difficult to make sense of.
There is the occasional note of pathos, not least when Monica reflects: ‘Everyone’s special, but I don’t always feel it. Mostly when someone has sex with me. Just before it happens: that moment of wonder: they want something and think it is me.’ And there is a brave attempt at exploring how adults deal with the legacy of a violent parent. But much of this gets lost amid some fairly poor jokes.