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Sunday, January 31, 2010

2. Chalcot Crescent by Fay Weldon

What rock was I napping under when this came out last September? A new book by Fay Weldon is an event to me – reading Down Among The Women when I was 13 (shortly after The Female Eunuch…) made me a feminist - but this one totally passed me by.

Possibly because I find the book pages of newspapers are mainly given over to studious biographies of Napoleon’s second general, so I hardly look at them…

When I did finally stumble upon it last week, the title sprang out rather than the author, because Chalcot Crescent is a street in Primrose Hill right around the corner from Chalcot Road, where I used to live.

And, adding to my interest, the book I have just finished is set entirely in Primrose Hill and one of the main characters live in Chalcot Crescent…

Anyway - the book. Bloody brilliant. It’s set three years hence in a dystopian future created by what might have happened if governments around the world hadn’t propped up the banking system when it was on the verge of collapse in 2008. (She must have turned this book around at warp speed.)

On top of this sparkling conceit Weldon applies another intriguing notion – what if we all suddenly lost interest in the consumerist way of life that actually entirely underpins capitalism?

In her parallel universe people have suddenly and collectively realised that constantly acquiring more ‘stuff’ is not the route to happiness. No shopping means no ‘growth’ means no economy…

As a result, houses are worthless, credit doesn’t exist, the EU falls to bits, it’s every country for themselves, food is the most valuable commodity and after a couple of hung parliaments an unelected government takes control.

What’s so gripping, is that for a moment back there something like this really could have happened. It still could.

That’s just a few of many brilliant possibilities the book explores, but what makes it more than a smart contemporary update on Brave New World and 1984, is that running alongside the big picture ideas, is the more personal – and fundamentally female - story of the narrator, Frances.

She’s a brilliant idea in herself – the person who might have existed if Fay Weldon’s real mother hadn’t had a miscarriage, when Fay was a child. A what if? sibling. Weldon then tantalises the reader with through-the-looking-glass parallels between Frances’ life and her own, as already laid bare in her autobiography, Auto da Fay.

Through 80 year-old Frances, Weldon retreads the issues of sexual freedom, financial semi-equality and legal triumphs, which have so occupied women over the last eight decades - while teasingly re-visiting controversial revisions of her own, from the post-feminist era.

And all of it done with the wit and verve you expect from this master stylist. ‘Banksters’ is just one term I delighted over.

There were sections when I slightly lost interest – hence relatively low un-put-downable-ness score - feeling that the ideas were taking over from pushing on the story, but then something bright and sparkling would hook me in again.

There is a also lot of repetition in the book which made me wonder at first if Ms Weldon didn’t have an editor strong enough to stand up to her, until I realised she was using it deliberately, more vividly to paint her octogenarian anti-heroine.

At nearly 80 herself, this book shows Fay Weldon still has more ideas crackling in her brain than she knows what to do with. I bow at her feet.

And now I’m going to read what the brainy broadsheet reviewers had to say about it on publication.

Reading satisfaction: 8
Un-put-downable-ness: 6
Recommend to best girlfriend: 8
Recommend to spouse: 5 (he might read this because of socio-political content)
Recommend to mother: 8
Recommend to niece: 8
Recommend to man pal: 6
Recommend to Helen Razer: 9
Happy to read on public transport: 9


  1. I heard Fay talking about this on Radio 4- on Woman's Hour I think- and thought it sounded marvellous- and that she is exceptional, she writes so well with such pace. Anyway I wishlisted it and haven't read it- I do read books though the 2 comments I am leaving probably don't suggest that I do! am deep in a Cormac McCarthy phase at the moment but this is still on the neverending wishlist.

  2. i too missed this book's publication. like you i first read weldon at around the age of 13/14 and have loved her ever since. thanks for bringing it to light.