Two books shared the Booker prize in 1974: Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist, and Holiday, by Stanley Middleton. The first is about South Africa, and who it really belongs to; the second is about one man, and whether he wants to make his marriage work.
Edwin Fisher has left his wife, and is spending a week in the seaside town where he lived as a boy. He happens upon his in-laws there, and meets other folks as well. By the end, he is surrounded by new friends, who seem to give him the strength to give his marriage another try.
I must disagree with other reviewers who have said that this book takes place “all in Edwin’s head.” It is true that Fisher feels profoundly alone at first, as reflected in this pathetic image: “…he must take pleasure in the exercise, march along these asphalt paths until he wanted nothing. No road had that length, so he made further along the promenade…” But I think what is important is Fisher getting *out* of his head, and meeting people in other circumstances: families with children (the Fishers’ son died at age two); lower-class families (he’s a professor); couples who might cheat on each other; couples who don’t; people who are planning for old age, and so on.
I like that Edwin is open to meeting all these folks and to learning something from them. What I don’t like about this book is that his wife Meg is truly unstable, yet Edwin seems to cater to her moods without urging her to get to the root of the problem. He and Meg’s father have much deeper heart-to-heart talks than husband and wife do. Meg, for example, is scornful of religion, while her husband finds comfort in the church, if not salvation. The couple hardly seems to know each other.
But the holiday proves healing for Edwin, and he returns ready to try again. He is able in these familiar surroundings to reflect on his childhood and earlier relationships. An exotic, far-flung voyage could not have brought him the same perspective, Middleton seems to say. Instead, Fisher needed to be immersed in Englishness, to rediscover himself and his past. This subtle portrait of a particularly English time and place must be at least part of what made this book appealing enough to award its creator equal space on the podium with the more political Nobel prize winner, Nadine Gordimer.
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