Review: The Pumpkin Eater, by Penelope Mortimer
New Introduction by
The mother (but not the caretaker) of countless children, the narrator seems lost in a world of "...orange squash, blackcurrant syrup, tins of soup or beans or salmon, disinfectant or instant coffee...", trapped in her mind like she's trapped in the glass tower her husband built for her. This dream-castle serves as both physical barrier (not to mention the Freudian implications of a large, fragile phallus in the middle of the countryside) and delusional whimsy. Her husband's transgressions are unhidden, transparent, testimony for his wife's mental trials.
In all the chaos, you might think it would be difficult to find a thru-line, a string tied to a life preserver, tossed into an unforgiving sea. But it's there, in the form of the Armitages' daughter, Dinah. Insignificant at first, indistinguishable from the circus of little ones, Dinah's importance grows, and it is in her mother's awareness of this growth that the chaos finally subsides.
This tide-like narrative is somewhat reminiscent of another woman's chaotic semi-autobiographical novel: Zelda Fitzgerald's Save Me the Waltz. If Zelda had been a little less delusional, a little more honest, a little less oppressed, a little more depressed, a little less vivacious, and a little more prolific (okay maybe a lot more prolific), she might have been Penelope Mortimer or her literary twin, Mrs. Armitage.
But compared to Save Me the Waltz, Armitage's break is more present. The writer is more aware of herself, and there's an element of the story actually being composed, rather than lived--you really notice this in her treatment of Ireen, and in the way the character seems to ironically haunt the rest of the story. It's the kind of thing where you can hear the writer, amidst the depression and the victimizing) and pick out her victorious laughter in the midst of the din.