If vivid, drily hilarious tales about messy families stuffed with passive aggression and seething resentment are your thing, you will gleefully hoover up Charlotte Mendelson’s riotous, prize-winning novels. These buzzing sagas dissect dysfunctional relationships with spiky wit and remarkable acuity.
The Exhibitionist is as good as any of her previous books. Ray Hanrahan is a failed artist who once glimpsed mild critical approbation before lapsing into obscurity. He’s also a comically monstrous anti-hero: narcissistic, abusive, controlling, dishonest and a hypochondriac. He has quashed his talented sculptor wife Lucia’s career with guilt- tripping and spurious claims of plagiarism. She is so cowed by his bullying that she jumps to his every command.
The couple’s younger daughter Jess has taken refuge by escaping London for Edinburgh, but she too has been so subdued by her father’s tyranny that she lacks the confidence to call time on her own relationship with a space-invading, opportunist dullard. The elder daughter Leah has sacrificed any life of her own to soothe and placate her father. Patrick, Lucia’s son from a previous relationship, is an anxious introvert, banished from the house by Ray.
But change is coming. Lucia has just met someone who has made her re-examine her life. As the family gather for an ostentatious private view of Ray’s work that he has demanded – in the absence of gallery interest – they organise, the poisonous pus at the heart of this family rises to a head and must be lanced.
It’s a glorious ride. Mendelson observes the minutiae of human behaviour like a comic anthropologist, skewering pomp and sulking faux victimhood. But the drollery doesn’t mask the oppression of the real victims of this domestic autocrat. My only cavil is with the passivity of the family: the lack of insight and self-saving action of intelligent individuals. There is no glimpse of the ‘fun’ Ray, for whom Lucia has stayed all these decades. But then again, self-delusion affects both tyrants and their brainwashed prey and Mendelson’s astute perception demonstrates this with aplomb.