The Pregnant Widow

I've struggled in the past to get into Martin Amis's writing. I loved most of his father Kingsley's books, and sort-of-thought that if I enjoyed the one I should probably like the other too, but that's never seemed to work out. I read London Fields some time ago, and can remember absolutely nothing about it. Money : A Suicide Note, considered by many to be one of his best, I was unable to get further than a few chapters.

I was moved to read his latest, The pregnant widow, by an interview he gave in which he described, very lovingly, his relationship with his sister, who features as one of the characters in the novel. It was a side of Martin Amis I hadn't seen before, and I'm very glad that I did read The pregnant widow, it's poignant and funny, for most of the way through a real page turner, and also food for thought - posing some provocative questions. Was the sexual revolution "a good thing", who did it really free, and was it truly a casualty free, velvet, revolution?

Semi-autobiographical, the novel follows a group of friends staying at a castle in Italy over one long hot summer in 1970. The hero, Keith Nearing, is staying with his semi-liberated sort-of girlfriend Lily, but wants to sleep with the beautiful Scherezade, who for all her seeming liberation is actually extremely conservative. In search of sexual adventure he ends up sleeping with the voracious Gloria Beautyman. His fling with Gloria breaks up his relationship with Lily, as his quest for more exotic sexual exploits ruins any hope of tenderness there may have been between them. The next 20 years are spent in a series of failed relationships constantly on the lookout for sexual hi-jinks. Even a brief reconciliation with Lily fails. The sexual revolution in Keith's case seems to mean that relationships can be all about sex, or all about love, but not both. Finally he is re-united with a minor character from the Italian holiday - a seemingly innocent character, at the time, who was actually concealing a terrible secret - Keith is finally able to re-unite sex and love, and finds happiness at last.

In the meantime, his beloved sister Violet, based fairly closely on Martin Amis' own sister, Sally, is a casualty of the sexual revolution. She, like Keith, has been exploring the boundaries, but has been brutalised in the process. Throughout the novel her story is a shocking counterpoint to what seems to Keith to be the serious issue of his life, but is in fact only a comedy of manners against the horrific backdrop that is Violet's life.

It's not a perfect book - I suspect that it might be one of those novels that will be read very differently by men to women. Many of the female characters do seem to be pigeonholed as either saints or sluts. But having said which, he does go deeper into their characters than just that. Violet, for example, is most definitely not seen just as a sinner.

It's a good read, an interesting novel - I definitely wish that it had made it onto the Booker longlist (or even shortlist). It's extremely funny - interspersed with some of the most hilarious literary criticism you could ever hope to read - I'll never think of Jane Austen in quite the same way - and in the passages about Violet/Sally there is some of the tenderest writing you could ever wish to read.


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