Lorna Fergusson’s The Chase is a complex, dark and sometimes claustrophobic story of a couple whose dysfunctional marriage is way past its sell-by date. The novel is skilfully written, bold and ambitious for a first novel. But Fergusson obviously honed her craft by writing short stories and is a former winner of the prestigious short story prize – the Ian St James Award.
The only thing that Netty and Gerald still have in common is a shared sense of loss over a terrible tragedy to befall the family, five years previously.
In his boorish, blustering way, Gerald buys a gloomy house in the Dordogne (or as it is unkindly known, Dordogneshire), as pre-Euro and the current recession, the area attracted a large number of Brits who could afford second homes or who sold up and started a new life there.
I’m guessing the book is set around the mid 1990s (although there is no reference in the book to the wider world in either Britain or France) but I figured it would have to be around this time – just as the economy in the UK has picked up enough for Gerald to sell his plumbing manufacturing company in England for a killing and head off to a blissful retirement in France.
As someone who used to help expats relocate to their idea of utopia, those who left their home country to run away from something (like Gerald and Netty) were the least likely to settle; as sadly, no matter how hard you try to leave your emotional baggage behind, it has a habit of catching up with you.
Netty’s characterisation is bold, complex and so realistic that I had to take breaks while reading The Chase as she is so realistic that she reminded me too much of self-absorbed and manipulative types who, by refusing to take control of their own lives can then go and blame everyone else for how awful their lives seem to be. And in Netty’s case, the terrible tragedy happened to her entire family but as she sees it, it’s only her feelings that count.
Netty has a troubled relationship with her grown up children and is particularly critical of her adult daughter Lynda, whose crime was to inherit her father’s forceful personality. You do wonder what it was that Netty ever saw in Gerald in the first place – apart that is as an old-fashioned provider or that she ‘enjoyed the sense of his protection, a bulwark against social fire and flood.’ Netty seems to take no interest in her grandchildren either, which is curious. Her relationship with her son Paul seems to be better than it is with Lynda, although she even turns on him when she reveals that she doesn’t love her children equally and unconditionally, when he bares his soul to her about his sexuality.
Netty does have a pang of guilt over the way she reacted to Paul’s revelation but is not honest enough with herself to admit the real reason for her reaction – that she was in competition with her son – and she lost. And as we know, hell hath no fury….
Only a writer of this calibre could sustain a story about such unpleasant characters in the way that Fergusson does and she does so with brio. The story within the story – of the history of the house and the area is brilliantly done and I was particularly interested in the art historical aspects of the cave paintings. And although I’ve never been to the Dordogne, the detail of the research is evident.
A brilliantly observed story of the disintegration of a marriage.