Olivia Glazebrook

Going round the bend in a bunch

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Maggie’s Tree

Julie Walters

Weidenfeld, pp. 256, £

If you had a friend who was an actress, and she was on the brink of a nervous collapse, what would you do to cheer her up? Or rather, what wouldn’t you do? I bet you wouldn’t take her to New York to visit a mutual friend, another actress, who was starring on Broadway — after all, that would be a bit vindictive, wouldn’t it? I mean, what’s more likely to give an actress a nervous breakdown than the success of a close personal friend?

Well, Cissie O’Brien is a comedienne (ghastly, unfunny word), so perhaps she does it as a joke: she whisks her depressed actress friend, Maggie Salt, off to Manhattan to visit their pal Helena Cassidy who is the current toast of the theatre world. Nice work, Cissie. Before anyone has had time to say ‘darling’, Maggie’s lost it. She’s given her friends the slip and is ‘out of her tree’ in a bar somewhere.

Cissie and Helena mount a half-hearted attempt to find Maggie, but they don’t get very far since that would involve having to stop thinking about themselves for five minutes, which is plainly impossible. As well as being entirely self-involved they are given to hysterics of one kind or another, and so poor old Maggie does not stand much chance of being found.

Fortunately, she has been rescued by a kind stranger (one feels that she might have relied too often on the kindness of such strangers), Michael, who shepherds her into a cab and takes her home with him. Less fortunately, Michael turns out also to be clutching in vain at the straws of sanity. His son has died; he longs to save Maggie instead. The threat of not saving her, of failing her, is too much for his fragile mind. In the event, it is the sideways glance into Michael’s abyss which jolts Maggie back to something approaching sanity.

But meanwhile, not wishing to be outdone by her friend, Cissie has rented a hotel room in which to have her own nervous breakdown and then perhaps effect a suicide. It seems that her lesbian girlfriend has been outed by the British tabloids — hence the hastily undertaken trip abroad. Even Helena'’s insipid husband Luke succumbs to the general mania and has a tearful episode under his duvet.

As you see, there’s a lot going on. Too much, in fact — it’s exhausting. Four of the five protagonists in the novel suffer breakdowns. Has Julie Walters’s world gone mad, or is this what it’s like in show business? One of these women would be quite enough for a novel. Screeching at one another and leaping about like a gang of baboons? They are tiresome, and strike too similar a note. The aim is black comedy, but the men are too pathetic, and the women too irritating, to amuse. The pity is that whilst Julie Walters is plainly a clever, sensible woman, none of her characters is anything of the sort — and a sensible voice is dreadfully missed.