Caroline Hulse (Orion)
The Adults is the adroitly named debut novel by Caroline Hulse. Wise, forensically observant and darkly funny, it begins like a light piece of social comedy, encapsulates elements of a tightly paced thriller before concluding with moments of magic realism and Jacobean tragedy. It also has an intense and claustrophobic tone which makes it more than a chattering classes piece of fluff, or a drawing room, comedy of modern manners, affair.
Its premise, though promising, and terribly sensible, a blended family holiday at a forest park over Christmas, is the perfect recipe for disaster. The reader senses this from the outset, but the six main characters, who include Matt and Claire, divorced but with their daughter Scarlett and her imaginary friend, a colossal toy rabbit named Posey, and their respective new partners, Patrick and Alex, are so obliviously playing at being nice, all caught up in the compliments of the season, they really are as deluded as they are oblivious. It is a book that is imbued with a air of thunder in the distance. Things possibly could go awry as they are all skating on the thinnest of ice.
As perfectly nice and educated people trying to do the right thing, attempting to ignore the impact of the past on their present, they have a chance of seasonal success. Claire is “uber” efficient and organised, Matt has a difficulty with telling a whole story, Alex is a likeable recovering alcoholic, whilst Patrick, an action man on the borders of middle or muddle age, who despite his qualifications, is something of a “himbo” and a square. Add to this Scarlet and her appeased and rather meddlesome imaginary rabbit, and the scene is set for a less than restive, festive vacation. They all suffer elements of what could be called emotional woodworm, have all the little anxieties attached to dealing with someone their old partner has rejected or dealing with someone they would have never chosen, the inevitable comparisons, and emotional measuring up, of doing well or better than via the proving of real or imaginary points.
Hulse is a kindly but brutal narrator of their respective angst and failings. She rests her all too observant eye on her literary off-spring, and we can all recognize someone they resemble, and indeed are likely to be as guilty as them, of their inadequacies and conceits. As the proceedings slide like a car with the brakes off down the hill and over the cliffs it reminds me of the late Kathleen Farrell's (1912-1999) neglected master-stroke novel of the early 1950's Mistletoe Malice, again about people marooned together at Christmas. There may be no internet nor mobile phones in her book, but the tone of the emotions, riven and exhausting, are as much to the fore. The things around us may change, but the thoughts within remain the same.
It’s easy to see why there is such a fanfare around this book. It is being published in fifteen different countries, and deserves to find an audience in them all. People in love, people who once were in love, or people simply trying their best and usually failing, are suffering from a global condition. Hulse has a certain Barbara Pym mischief about her observances, but is seldom cruel. I can see why the book will likely find a greater readership amongst women, but it is universal in its understanding of the sexes, and will reward accordingly by observing, annotating, but never judging.
A democratic and audacious debut, it doesn't read like a debut at all.