Review: The Party Wall gives us an anti-hero for the age of Trump and Johnson
If ever there was a competition to choose the all-time neighbour-from-hell then Dr. Mark Heyward could win first, second and third place and then some. An urbane expert on art with a silver tongue, the ready friendship he offers Freya, the woman next door seems, at first, to be an act of compassion. She’s in the grip of the early throes of grief, having just lost her philandering, libertine artist husband Keir, so when Mark offers his help she takes him very much at his word.
And they are fine words: this is a man who can turn a sentence much as a Grecian potter turns an urn. At the funeral he steps forward, unbidden, to say a few words, in so doing stopping a woman with a huge soft spot for the deceased from rabbiting on:
‘Our neighbour, Keir,’ Mark said, with expressive feeling. ‘We speak a name, don’t we?’ he paused. ‘And a person answers. From now on, when we name Keir nobody will respond. But souls live on – and here I am quoting the great George Eliot – souls live on in perpetual echoes.’’
Soon Mark has acquired a spare key to Freya’s place and has won the trust of her dog Storm. But trust is a word that scarcely applies to Mark, for not every word of his is gospel. Soon he is rifling through drawers and filching even some of his neighbour’s most intimate possessions, not least a cache of letters her husband wrote her during his dying days. Convincing himself, perhaps already convinced that he is in love with her, and that what he is doing is looking after her, being custodial, Mark even installs a hidden microphone in the house so he can eavesdrop more successfully.
But Mark is more than just a grade-A stalker, he is the wilder kind of fantasist too, coupled with a liar’s compulsion to fabricate and put one over on his listener. So he invents a therapist, and heavy reasons for needing to see one, such as the death of a child of his knowing this will resound like a funeral bell with Freya, who lost her own.
As the novel unfolds – with all the care, craft and deep felicity with language we have come to expect from this fine novelist – we find out about Mark’s agitatedly troubled past, such as childhood punishments meted out by an evil grandmother straight out of central casting. She locks him in a coal cellar, or, worse, has his favourite dog Pearl put down. Plus we find out about some of the other women in his life, such as the gifted viola player Lily, who has her hand smashed in a door jamb, not long before her beloved instrument is smithereened in the street.
Lily and Mark once lived together in a house called Tŷ Hafan, and it is perhaps no accident that the place shares a name with a hospice, because death, it seems, is set to move into the place and we see Lily’s broken body set at the foot of the stairs. But then again Lily is associated with death: names often have extra significance in the book. Mark, the name of the writer of the first of the gospels connects with his coal miner grandfather, ‘a Methodist, a bible Christian.’
His grandparents named his mother Sharon, a woman Mark never saw. ‘Occasionally, if you thought that name – Sharon – almost hiding the thought from yourself – Sharon – there came a sense of something endlessly tender. A presence, just out of view, like a scent. Getting out of bed and stretching, Mark opened the curtains and looked down the darkening garden. The pale, cup-like flowers of Hibiscus Syriacus he’d planted along the fence in her memory, still glowed faintly. I am the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valleys.’
The proximity of his mother and late wife’s names, both in bed together is surely no accident. Meanwhile, Freya has a name from another belief system, being the most beautiful of the Norse gods. Then there someone’s daughter called Haf (Sun) whose mother is Rae. In a party, Mark explains that his late wife’s name is short for Lilith, a name with its roots in Babylonian demonology. This is a book brim-full of many such felicitous and telling details.
Mark’s incipient violence is the brooding sub-song running under The Party Wall and Stevie Davies handles it with the sure sense of a virtuoso. It’s a hoary old chestnut perhaps, but here is a novelist at the height of her powers, yet those powers aren’t expressed with any pomp or blast of brass bands, but rather with quiet, sure subtlety and a well-adjudged awareness of psychological nuance.
It’s a timely book in the extreme as men who lie with a penchant for self-aggrandisement seem to be the ugly pin-ups of the age – think Trump, Johnson, Cummings – who, whatever their legion faults can still spin a line sufficient to hook many a listener, or voter. You can imagine them back slapping Mark, whose pathological bent for deceit and need for control would allow him to fit right in. He’s therefore very much an anti-hero for our time, a champion of the blatant lie and a reptilian manipulator extraordinaire.
Mark Heyward is nevertheless a great if utterly repellent character, but luckily Freya is ultimately more than his match. With a vivid side-cast of characters, who all seem to keep watch on her she’s a character we root for and side with, an abiding figure who stays in the mind long after the turn of the final page.
It seems that Stevie Davies, in building The Party Wall might well have also put together a strong contender for next year’s Wales Book of the Year. It also consolidates her already rock-solid reputation as a superb novelist, who uses precise language to examine the world and its vagaries with all the skill, wisdom and dexterity of a heart surgeon slowly probing an aorta, testing the very pulse of life.
The Party Wall is published by Honno and can be bought here.