'The Daughter of Lady Macbeth' by Ajay Close (Sandstone Press)
There are two types of woman in the world: those who aspire every day to be more like their mothers, and those who spend their lives resisting every genetic impulse. Freya, the protagonist of Ajay Close’s latest novel, 'The Daughter of Lady Macbeth', belongs to the latter category.
For Freya’s mother, Lilias, the whole world is a stage. As an actress, her identity is in an unceasing process of transformation as she hops from role to role, falling in love over and over again with the latest leading man. Freya, the antithesis of her mother in many respects, leads a life of routine, holding down a stable job and marrying the first boy she ever kissed. Nine years later, she and Frankie are having trouble conceiving and opt for IVF treatment. Although Freya has seamlessly transitioned from Lilias Cavalle’s daughter to Frankie MacKewon’s wife, she discovers during her transition into the role of mother that she has no identity of her own for her future daughter to either aspire towards or rebel against.
'The Daughter of Lady Macbeth' is an honest and often relentless exploration of relationships, identities and the friction between them. Each of the novel’s central characters has several identities: Freya is a wife, daughter, friend and working woman; her husband a successful sports reporter, friend and son. Close keenly observes the emotional literacy demanded by these roles and astutely portrays the tension between who her characters want to be and who they are in a way that makes them utterly relatable.
Close’s writing style is direct and the dialogue she composes for her characters is both engaging and recognisable. She shifts between Freya’s narrative in the present day to the third-person account of Lilias in 1972 to demonstrate that history does not exist in isolation. The past and present weave in and out of one another; memory shapes current experience and vice versa, and, unfortunately for Freya, the answers to who we are often lie somewhere in the corners of an abandoned past.
This theme of duality which pervades the narrative is arguably the novel’s highest accomplishment. It somehow manages to be unapologetically unromantic without ever giving the impression that love is a losing battle. There is no post-coital glow between lovers; these moments merely give them an opportunity to study the cracks in the ceiling plaster and consider the cracks in their own relationships.
Nonetheless, the characters are fundamentally motivated by love. Regardless of how many backhanded compliments they exchange, their infidelity, estrangement, dishonesty and disappointment, they forgive one another over and over again to maintain the sense of validation that is fostered by love.
The ending, though, is somewhat ambiguous. Given the candour of the novel I assumed its final pages would offer some resolve to the mysteries of the plot. This direct, frank tone was, however, subverted in the concluding pages, leaving the reader to flick frantically through the flyleaves for a hidden epilogue. Feeling a little betrayed by the candid tone I had observed thus far, I wonder if Close’s goal all along was to leave the reader in the same unsated condition as her characters.
Ultimately, though, 'The Daughter of Lady Macbeth' is moving in places, uncomfortable in others, but always entertaining. It is a work of fiction rooted in unflattering truths and realistic portraits of modern relationships, and the cynical undertone which pervades the narrative saves it from becoming another cliched tale of self-discovery. There is no exotic 'Eat Pray Love' quest for selfhood; the struggle each of Close’s characters endures takes place within the parameters of their own minds. This struggle to reconcile who you are with who you’d rather be is one with which we can all identify.
Illustration: sculpture of Lady Macbeth at the Shakespeare Memorial in Stratford-upon-Avon