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The Seattle Times: "An ingenious, dystopian concoction full of surprises."

Date: Nov 13 2010

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Reviewed by Robert Allen Papinchak for The Seattle Times


Fay Weldon's 29th novel, "Chalcot Crescent," is an ingenious, dystopian concoction full of surprises. Some are big; some are little. Some are "nasty"; some are "good." All have significant consequences.

The first big surprise is disclosed at the start. Weldon reveals that "Chalcot Crescent" is predicated on a miscarriage. Narrated by Weldon's unborn sister, Frances Prideaux, the novel is about the "alternative universe which closely mirrors our own" in which Francine might have lived. In short, this is the highly imaginative story of a sibling who was never born and that unlived life. Some readers may recognize details from Fay's life in Frances'.

 

It is 2013 in a post-consumer London society. Frances is 80. She has lived through the Shock of '08, the Crunch of '09-11, the Recovery of '12, and is now in the Bite of '13. The unemployment rate is 60 percent. Gone are the days of "lemon veal and chocolate mousse." Dried egg is imported. Speculation runs wild as to what might be in the diet staple, a Sweeney Todd-inspired National Meat Loaf with a variable consistency from smooth to haggis crumbly. The ruling establishment is a group of sociologists and therapists known as NUG (National Unity Government).

 

"Chalcot Crescent" is essentially plotless. Frances, once a successful feminist writer, is sitting on the stairs in her house along with her 30-something grandson, Amos. They are waiting for debt collectors to arrive. What plot there is depends upon the shenanigans of pot-smoking Amos. As a member of Redpeace, the "fundamentalist spawn of Greenpeace," he and several members of his family are coordinating a kidnapping in the house next to Frances'.

 

A series of 57 brief chapters provide thumbnail sketches of Frances' extended family of eccentrics. The reader can be forgiven for the confusion that might result by the confounding number of siblings, half-siblings, stepchildren, great aunts, cousins and stepparents, many of whom receive only a brief mention. Surprises continue to accrue — what appears to be an inconsequential event (the death of a friend in a plane crash) is a story line that keeps coming back. A suicide turns out to be murder; a son-in-law is responsible for providing that meatloaf through the National Institute for Food Excellence; a grandchild is a stepchild.

 

As Frances narrates what she says might be memoir, fact, truth, "or some embroidery of the truth," she is certain of one thing. She believes that "the past comes towards us... to make our futures." Weldon adeptly tackles that provocative theme by cleverly imagining what might have been if a life loosely based on her own belonged to someone else.