The story of a Glasgow woman who has not left home for over three years, Meredith, Alone is sympathetically written but devoid of sentimentality, writes Allan Massie
Meredith has not left her home for 1,214 days. She writes in the first person and tells of her everyday life, interspersed with flashbacks to childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. This is a suspense novel, but an unusual one. The question is will she ever venture out again, and if so, why and when?
The title is a little misleading. Meredith may live alone, but she’s not always alone. She has a friend, Sadie, who visits her and brings her young children, and a sister, Fiona, who does the same. Then, early in the story, she is visited by a young man, Tom, who works for a fellow charity called Holding Hands. She lets him in and gives him tea and biscuits, and soon they’re doing a puzzle together; She loves puzzles and calls herself “Jigsaw Girl” on the internet. She earns her living in her isolation and writes lyrics (or content) for websites. She has a cat named Fred, uses the internet for shopping and has a number of online friends. At the beginning of the novel, she finds a new girl, Celeste, who she quickly befriends. In short, she has a well organized life and finds it quite satisfying. She is alone but not lonely.
How did she come to live like this? What breakdown did she suffer? How secure is their apparent self-sufficiency? These questions arise early. Answers, or at least suggestions of an answer, are offered early in childhood flashbacks. “Why,” she asks her 14-year-old sister in 1993, “don’t we have photos of us as babies?” Then, when she has her first boyfriend, she reflects, “Spending time with his family made me to take a closer look at my own. Normal was talking at the breakfast table. Normal told the truth, even when it hurt. Family pictures were normal.”
What wasn’t normal, or what she would like to call normal, was the girls’ relationship with their mother. “Mom,” as they perhaps surprisingly called her, wasn’t normal. Her father was absent, although almost until the end of the novel it is unclear whether he had chosen to leave his wife and daughters or was expelled. Mom is difficult. She doesn’t seem to like them. They are a burden, a chain in their social life. As a drinker, smoker and man hunter, she comes across as a slut to the girls. She sure is embarrassing. You can see why Meredith chose to retire in adult life and embrace a way of life where she believes she can control everything. as long as she doesn’t step through the front door.
The story is strong. It’s set in Glasgow, although it could be anywhere, and this isn’t what you’d expect from a Glasgow novel. Certainly there isn’t a strong sense of the city as Meredith tries to shut out the world behind her front door.
It is a novel in the classical tradition, the subject of which is the moral education of the heroine, who is to be brought to a true understanding of herself and the society to which she belongs. Jane Austen’s heroines must learn to prepare for the right husband, the right marriage. Here, Meredith must learn what she has been trying to deny: how to live in the social world. To learn this, she must come to terms with the past and accept that in order to break through the barriers she has put up, she must be willing to take the risk of being hurt.
This is a gripping novel, written in clear, unpretentious prose, without tedious bravado. Meredith is surprisingly believable in her chosen isolation, and Claire Alexander writes about her sympathetically but without sentimentality. Finally, in her hermitage, Meredith happily accepts the help of her sister and her friend without giving anything in return. At first she is almost entirely self-centered. She learns over time that giving is just as important, even more important, than receiving. I opened this book without enthusiasm, but I read it with increasing pleasure.
Meredith, Alone, by Claire Alexander, Michael Joseph, 415 pages, £14.99