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Marrying Out by Carlton Harold

Marrying Out

by Carlton Harold

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First published as "The Handsomest Sons in the World!, this reissue by Slightly Foxed Editions is a wonderful memoir by Harold Carlton, who appears as Howard Conway in the book. The family lives in Willesden in north-west London and is ruled over by the terrible character of Grandma, a whisky drinking tyrant who paints her face a chalky white, her lips a vivid slash of scarlet, dyes her hair bright orange, wears her biggest rubies when she wants to do battle, and is the drama queen of all drama queens. Her weekly teas in their Edgware Road flat where she cooks up a storm and people are expected to eat until they are bursting, her sitting at the kitchen table in her nightgown drinking whisky when her ungrateful sons reduce her to abject misery, her screamed instructions across a busy London street for young Howard to keep 'is bowels open, well, it's the stuff of opera on a grand scale in young Howard's life.

His own family consists of a terrifying father who bellows and roars, whom both he and his sister hate; a pretty mother who makes life bearable for both children, and his sister, Rachel, his ally. One of the brighter lights in his life is Grandpa, who returns Howard's love, calling him darling. Grandma favours her sons and dismisses Howard's mother but Grandpa favours his beautiful daughter (no spoilers but the explanation for this does come out near the end). And Grandpa, as we learn, has his own secrets. Howard becomes Grandpa's confidante, keeping many of those secrets, a go-between in sometimes critical situations.

What a family, what a life! Noise, gossip, explosions of histrionics from Grandma, all tossed up with the post-war life of London in the 1950s, "Marrying Out" is both a funny and strangely sad story of roughly four years of young Howard's life. His acute observations - supported by his reading of "The Collected Works of Sigmund Freud" - strip away the facade the family (Grandma in particular) would like to show the world, to reveal the strength of some characters and the weakness of others. There is a wonderful supporting cast in the book as well, especially "Aunt" Hilda and Grandma's Irish maid, Mary. The city of London itself has a strong supporting role, reminiscent of Woolf's use of the city in "Mrs. Dalloway".

This is tragicomedy at its finest, although I found the comedic aspects didn't make me laugh as much as squirm, perfectly balanced as they were with the tragic aspects (the wedding, for example). It's a wonderful little book, perfectly written. ( )
  tiffin | Jun 1, 2015 |
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