Nationality: British. Born: Candia Francis Juliet McWilliam in Edinburgh, Scotland, 1 July 1955. Education: Cambridge University, 1973-76, B.A. Family: Married 1) Q.G.C. Wallop in 1981 (divorced 1985), one son and one daughter; 2) F.E. Dinshaw in 1986, one son. Career: Vogue Magazine, 1976-79; Slade, Bluffix, and Bigg, 1979-81. Awards: Vogue talent contest, 1970; Betty Trask prize, 1988, Scottish Arts Council prize, 1989; Guardian prize for fiction, 1994. Member: Society of Authors, Royal Society of Literature. Agent: Janklow and Nesbit, 598 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.
A Case of Knives. London, Bloomsbury, and New York, Beech Tree, 1988.
A Little Stranger. London, Bloomsbury, and New York, Doubleday, 1989.
Debatable Land. London, Bloomsbury, and New York, Nan A. Talese, 1994.
Wait Till I Tell You. London, Bloomsbury, 1997.
Editor, The Macallan: Scotland on Sunday Short Story Collection. Edinburgh, Polygon, 1999.* * *
Candia McWilliam's three novels have established her as one of a trio of exceptionally talented young Scottish writers (Janice Galloway and A. L. Kennedy being the other two). In her fiction style is just as seductive as the story. Her language is spare and exact, yet elegant and strangely mysterious, though not without a touch of mordant humor. Descriptions are precise but less important for what they reveal about the external world than about inner reality; quotidian facts serve as the raw material for intricate psychological musings on social, sexual, and national identity.
A Case of Knives is her highly accomplished first novel. Divided into four parts, each told by a different character and in a different style, the novel is a study in English class structure and the ways people "experiment with human flesh," both physically and psychologically. Lucas Salik, the son of Polish Jews, has transformed himself into a proper Englishman, a respected pediatric cardiologist. He is also a homosexual (a fact known only to his very closest friends) who, as the novel's ominous opening line puts it, "needs a woman," for his lover, Hal, who has decided to lead a more respectable and conventional life as a married man. The girl Lucas selects proves, however, less the helpless prey than hungry predator in need of a husband to play the part of father of her unborn child. Indeed no character is quite what he or she appears. Neither is any character nearly as much in control of his or her respective plot as he or she assumes, except for the novel's most manipulative, and therefore most monstrous character, the "vegan carnivore" Angelica Coney, whose evil nature is the by-product of upper-class privilege. Pulling a series of skeletons out of her characters' figurative closets, McWilliam crafts a story that both seduces and shocks with its succession of narratively compelling and at times morally appalling surprises.
The capacity for self-delusion and the negative, potentially tragic consequences of English class structure reappear in A Little Stranger, a shorter and still more intense (and more intensely secretive) novel. Rendered with all the precision of a seventeenth-century still life and reminiscent of Jane Austen, Jane Eyre, and Henry James (The Turn of the Screw, What Maisie Knew ), this study in repression is narrated by another of McWilliam's culturally and psychologically divided characters. Raised by her Dutch father after her English mother "waltzed off to Vienna, bored by Amsterdam," the self-effacing narrator does not even mention her name until novel's end. Daisy only slowly realizes that she has lived at the very margin of her own life, "the useless but essential" wife of a wealthy landowner. She has little to do as wife and even less as mother—-other than write letters to people she does not know and closely observe (though not quite understand) the latest nanny, Margaret Pride. At first the novel seems to be about Margaret, who is not the pearl of great price Daisy believes her to be. Margaret's lower-class background has led her to create a fantasy in which she patiently awaits the coming of her prince, Daisy's emotionally and often geographically distant husband. More interesting than the revelations concerning Margaret are those having to do with Daisy's failure to apprehend something amiss earlier, as the reader does (though not altogether correctly). As in A Case of Knives, the sudden introduction of a topical issue (AIDS then, anorexia now) seems at once relevant and intrusive. More successful is McWilliam's appending to her novels—which seem about to end so disastrously—tentatively happy endings that do not so much resolve matters as remind readers of the precariousness of the characters' lives.
The claustrophobic intensity of the first two novels is not so much lacking as differently figured in Debatable Land, McWilliam's third and most ambitious work, in which her interest in the shaping effects of childhood is most pronounced. Following the last leg of a sailing voyage from Tahiti to New Zealand, this modern-day Odyssey brings six characters together on the Ardent Spirit. Playing the vastness of the ocean against the confinement of the sailboat, the sense of freedom and adventure against the sense of commitment and community, the novel creates a debatable land of its own. As the Ardent Spirit navigates well-charted but at times treacherous seas and reef-rimmed coastal waters, Debatable Land narratively tacks back and forth between characters, between a variously idealized past and a disappointing present, between a postparadisiacal (and postcolonial) Pacific and a Scotland that seems less a specific place than a multiplicity of psychological meanings resulting from her Scots having been raised in quite diverse geographical and socioeconomic settings. Although more intricately structured and broad-ranging than her two earlier novels, Debatable Land renders the complex inner lives of its characters with the same combination of intelligence, precision, and sympathetic understanding.
All the time she was writing her novels, McWilliam was also writing short fiction. Wait Till I Tell You comprises twenty-four stories: twenty-two that originally appeared 1988-1997 and two others that had not been previously published. The stories display the same eye for detail, the similarly precise, refined style, and the understated, mordant wit found in the novels and more than make up for what they necessarily lack in development with an unnerving, even claustrophobic compression well-suited to McWilliam's thematic purpose. For these are stories of terribly, if quietly constrained lives—mainly the lonely, powerless lives of women—set in "a country so rich in emptiness." Whether they take place in tearooms or nursing homes, at the seaside, on islands, or in a department store, the stories deal with displacements and disappointments, futility and frustration, of aging and merely holding on as best one can to the very little one has. They are stories in which lives do not so much progress as they are prolonged and in which even averting disaster (as in "The Only Only") deepens rather than relieves the foreboding.
McWilliam's restrained style is the perfect match for her characters' constrained lives; it also provides the reader, if not the characters, with a measure of aesthetic relief, the fineness of the writing contrasting with the smallness and drabness of those lives. All the stories are good, but at least three are much more than that. "A Revolution in China" is a sad comedy dealing with the last days (retirement and death) of Miss Montanari at age sixty-two, after forty-two uneventful years working in the same department store. The other two, "The Shredding of Icebergs" and "White Goods," are in effect versions of the same story, this time of wives whose marriages have become matters of deadening routine. "And so the days go on, chopped into finer and finer shreds of lightness that I think at last I can feel, each one, just before it goes." Lines such as this one demonstrate the combination of repressed emotional feeling and restrained yet elegant, even lyrical style that has become the hallmark of McWilliam's writing.
Robert A. Morace
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