You might think The Carer rather an unpromising title, but Deborah Moggach’s book delivers a wickedly witty entertainment. Towards the end, she describes the setting where a crucial event takes place — ‘somewhere as humdrum as a caravan park, toilet block, clock golf, Tupperware’. So very good at describing the ordinary, she transforms it into the unusual, shocking and fascinating. Behind the normality of people’s lives there often lies an extraordinary story. It’s this that Moggach tells with insight, acute observation of character and mordant humour.
The carer is Mandy, ‘doughy-faced’, fat-legged, stout of person and of purpose: ‘I speak as I find.’ She is employed by the middle-aged son, Robert, and daughter, Phoebe, of James Wentworth, a retired, widowed, internationally distinguished professor of particle physics. Her task is to look after him in his senile decline.
Phoebe is an ‘ageing hippie with impeccable Guardian credentials’, Robert a failed City man and failing novelist, married to a celebrity TV newsreader. James rapidly turns into an enfeebled old man ‘who had become an enthusiastic reader of the Daily Mail, surely a sign of senility’. His needs include the ‘massaging of his cold grey corpse’s feet’ and the bathing of his decrepit body with ‘its creases and sparse pubic hair’.
The point is: can Mandy be trusted? She seems too good to be true, and eventually gives grounds for suspicion. Moggach is expert at enticement and intrigue, and this extremely clever novel consists of many plot twists and turns. Its narrative devices constantly urge us on to the denouement — ‘but then something happened that changed it all’; ‘he was going to find out in the weeks ahead’.
The writing also reflects contemporary society. Thus Moggach’s comment on Phoebe’s diaphragms and coils: ‘How undignified are the foundations of rapture, and how dearly bought. Men have no idea.’ A transformed Phoebe finally aspires to become a town councillor. Robert comments: ‘You’re getting very Ken Loach.’ And there’s a satirical edge to some of the images: Robert’s wife ‘aerating the lawn with her Louboutin ankle-boots’, and his dog ‘with its chin on his knee, gazing at him as if he were Saul Bellow’.
The Carer is an immediately relevant work, a fiction anchored in reality. As the mysterious Mandy confesses: ‘I tried to be a lesbian once... Give me a man any day. I like the smell of their armpits.’