The twins, Brian Junior and Brianne, leave for university and Eva goes to bed. For a year.
Eva isn’t sure why she’s gone to bed. She tells the doctor she’s been tired for seventeen years ‑ since the birth of the twins. Medical people can’t find anything wrong with her, physically or mentally.
Eva takes the going-to-bed concept to its very limit, she won’t even get up to go the toilet. After failing to persuade anyone to agree to dispose of her bodily waste in freezer bags, she settles on a process of unfurling the crisp white bed sheets to form a white pathway to her ensuite toilet, winding the sheets up and tucking them back into the bed when she’s finished.
The rest of the characters whirl around Eva in her bed. Questions such as ‘who is going to make Brian’s tea?’ and ‘who is going to do Christmas?’ loom large. Brian, Brian’s mother and Eva’s mother eventually take on most of the domestic tasks that Eva now refuses to do (including feeding Eva) but resentment seethes and bubbles. Everyone thinks Eva is nuts and /or criminally selfish. Including the twins, two ‘gifted’ mathematicians who can only relate to each other and who Eva suspects have got Asperger’s syndrome.
Eva’s going to bed is not a principled decision, it’s hardly even a conscious one. She just needs to do it. Eventually she also needs to clear out her room of all its stuff and get it painted completely white. The man who paints her room is the very attractive dreadlocked ex-banker, Alexander. Some years ago Alexander had killed his wife in a car crash when he was drunk. After his wife’s death he gave up his high-flying lifestyle and now he’s an odd-job man and a would-be artist. He looks after his two beautiful children and, eventually, looks after Eva too, remembering to feed her when the others forget.
There are other odd and lonely characters who swim in and out of Eva’s life. To her dismay some claim her as a guru or saint. She becomes a sort of celebrity. People seek an audience with her, asking her to cure their misery, solve their problems. She can’t quite say no, and gets Alexander to ration a few a day.
Sue Townsend is very very funny. Some of the jokes and one-liners are classics, for instance:
“Remember the saying ‘You can’t be too rich or too thin’?
“Who said that?”
“I think it was Winnie Mandela.”
Despite the many comic touches, though, there is a bleakness in the tone of the novel. Eva seems to have had little joy or love in her quite ordinary, untragic life. In a loveless marriage, her consolations have been few. She even gets Alexander to take away her much-read books, saying that she has used them as an anaesthetic throughout her life.
(A character in a book condemning reading as a form of anaesthetic? Townsend happily poisons her own well and causes me to worry for a moment. Do I use books as an anaesthetic? But then, I think, nah. Eva uses a white pathway of sheets to go to the toilet because she can’t touch the floor. I’m not going to let her views on reading worry me. Plus, she’s fictional.)
The going-to-bed decision is clearly as powerful as it is passive. But I couldn’t help thinking ‑ why not go away instead of going to bed? Admittedly it wouldn’t be the book it is without the strange, still centre of Eva’s prone figure. Townsend can roam far and wide, even if Eva can’t, and the novel includes some insightful and thought-provoking commentary on the impact of the internet and celebrity culture on the ability of people to connect in the real world.
What gives the novel warmth is the underlying theme of kindness. The epigram at the beginning – “Be kind, for everybody you meet is fighting a hard battle” ‑ is echoed at the end with Eva confirming that what matters is “Simple kindness.”
Highlights: The wit and one-liners, the exploration of the practicalities of just going to bed and refusing to get out of it for a year, the odd-ball characters and their stories. Brian (he’s a total scumbag but he kind of danced off the pages).
Lowlights: Why so bleak, Eva?