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Blaming

by Elizabeth Taylor

Amy and Nick are a middle aged couple taking a Mediterranean cruise. Nick is recovering from serious surgery and Amy’s unusual solicitousness and patience convince him that she, in collaboration with the doctors, is keeping some really awful piece of information from him. In fact, she is finding it difficult to hide her exasperation and when, sorely provoked, she finally loses her temper, it is a great relief to him: he isn’t going to die! But that night he dies in his sleep.

So begins Elizabeth Taylor’s final novel, a piercing exploration of widowhood. The widow, Amy, is a complex character: shallow, selfish, self-obsessed, who can only see the people around her in relation to their impact on herself, yet she is subject to moments of searing self-awareness and guilt. When Nick dies on the cruise ship and she is left alone in Istanbul, Martha, a young female acquaintance from on board, cuts short her own holiday to support her. Far from being grateful, Amy’s indifference turns to irritation when Martha wants to continue the friendship when they return to England. Yet a certain amount of guilt and sense of propriety propel her to invite Martha to stay and their uneasy relationship is the backbone of the rest of the story.

None of Amy’s relationships are easy: she lives with Ernie Pounce, the man-servant whose loyalty is rewarded by her annoyance; she takes for granted her old friend and would-be lover, Gareth; and disdains the dutifully sensible advice of her son. Yet she is patient and wise in her dealings with her grandchildren, precocious Dora and troubled Isobel. The scenes with the girls, revolving around their childish perceptions and misconceptions, are wonderfully true and funny.

Amy tries to get through widowhood “as if it were a temporary affliction” and Taylor describes the rituals of a very English sort of mourning. As Gareth says, “In this age, we try too much to cover up the fact of death, and I believe we suffer for it in the end.” Ernie provides smoked salmon sandwiches because, Amy thinks, he considers “this sort of sandwich goes well with disaster” while her son, James, “simply thought of the price of smoked salmon”.

BLAMING was written while she was dying of cancer and published posthumously in 1976, which accounts for the rather melancholy subject matter. It is, of course, about grief and the blame and guilt that attach themselves to bereavement. But Taylor’s touch is so light and the narrative shines so brightly with her sense of humour that it is far from a melancholic read.

Clare Chandler

Published by Virago Press, 208pp.

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