On the promenade of Morecambe, Lancashire, stands a statue of bespectacled, smiling man. His right hand cocked in a wave, he balances himself on one leg, leans slightly forward, and around his neck dangle a pair of binoculars. Since his unveiling in 1999, he has withstood the bird droppings of many a sea gull, the photographs of sundry tourists, and even the unsolicited amputation of his left leg. For those unfamiliar with all things Lancastrian, I speak, of course, about comedian Eric Morecambe, whose statue plays something of a recurring role in Cath Barton’s wistful yet assured second novella. But more of Eric anon.
‘In the Sweep of the Bay’ opens in 2009 with a snapshot of Morecambe life, its mores and people, their dialects and habits. An unnamed council worker, responsible for the upkeep of the statue, cleans Morecambe’s pate, sweeps the steps, takes photographs for those who wish to be photographed. ‘People think my job is menial,’ he says, ‘but there is a lot more to it than that.’ Talking to people, he insists, has as much to do with his job description as cleaning does, and that he takes a genuine interest in people is patent from the book’s opening pages.
So too, for that matter, is Barton’s. She quickly establishes her own empathy for the inner and outer lives of England’s working-classes, and succeeds confidently in retaining it for the novella’s modest duration. Her story, we will see, is about several things—the inter-connectedness of human relationships, the perils of miscommunication, the shocking degree to which we hardly know our own loved ones—but throughout its telling, Barton’s primary concern remains the same: the strained marriage, its various causes and damaging consequences.
The narrative quickly jumps away from the unnamed council worker, the significance of whose interactions with Lancastrians and tourists alike will become clear towards the book’s end, and settles instead on the history of Teddy and Irene Marshall. We follow them back in time, from their tentative courtship in 1950s England through to Teddy’s heart attack in 1984 and beyond still to the late 2000s. And though theirs is a balanced story, one of highs and lows, aches and laughs, they tacitly agree that it could have been a happier one. Irene routinely wonders, for example, whether she ought to have married some else, while Ted continually struggles to elicit his wife’s sympathies. Even after they have both passed away, their daughters speculate over their father’s faithfulness. One is convinced his fidelity was steadfast; the other, not so much.
What unfolds, then, is a narrative with which many are familiar. A newly married woman struggles with the constraints of domesticity. The head of the family resists the temptation to seduce his secretary. (Or does he?) History repeats itself as Irene watches her daughter Dorothy sacrifice her intellectual promise for a life of child-rearing and a jilting husband. But if Barton manages to elude cliché, she does so by directing her curiosity not just at the Marshalls and the lives they lead behind closed doors, but at their material means of survival, which is to say the family business.
It doesn’t take long for Ted’s work to impinge upon his marriage. When he leaves school at fifteen and joins S&L Marshall, the ceramics company of which his Aunt Lavinia then sits at the helm, he spends three years as an apprentice before moving over to the paint benches. Though he quickly discovers his talent for decorating vases, many years pass before he finds himself running the business—and still more before his work ends up in Vogue. It is clear, however, that the company is a source of affliction in the Marshall household. Irene insists that he loves his work more than he loves her, and despite his protestations to the contrary his convictions, once articulated, always falls flat. He is a man for whom the phrase ‘I love you’ is virtually impossible. Neither he nor his wife are wholly content in their marriage, but they lack the communication skills necessary to unpack their frazzled relationship.
Barton is interested, above all, in whether the couple’s struggles are caused primarily by their personal shortcomings or by the greater socio-economic forces whirling about them. Were Ted and Irene incompatible from the get go, she asks, or did their upbringing raise them to be incapable of communication, especially on the subject of sex and love? Barton refuses to offer any kind of categorical answer; she understands that most relationships—and periods in history—are more complicated than any false dichotomy might have one believe. Indeed, as a later subplot involving the emigration of an Italian bartender to Morecambe makes clear, complexity and diversity are things to be celebrated, not condemned.
It should be said, however, that for all Barton manages to inject a sense of vitality into her melancholy tale, the novella is not without its flaws. Her use of the first-person narrator—which accounts for approximately 15 of its 104 pages—is far less compelling than the poised, third-person narration that makes up the bulk of her book. At its best, her narration is fluid, enticing, engaged, nuanced; at its worst—cloying, futile, superficial, glib.
Nevertheless most readers will be willing to overlook this stylistic deficiency thanks to the thematic richness of Barton’s story and the deeper layers of her characters’ lives. Which brings us back to Morecambe’s statue. Approximately halfway through the novel, Ted and Irene learn that the celebrated comedian has passed away. Irene suggests that the council ought to put up a statue of the man, down by the bay; Ted reminds her that ‘he wasn’t all marvellous. . . he supported Thatcher.’ But Barton isn’t concerned with current-day cancel culture and the razing of statues. Rather, she is dedicated to the complexities of human personality; to the vices and virtues, the rectitude and foibles, which ultimately constitute a human. And should the author, whose prior novella won a New Welsh Writing Award in 2017, continue to explore this element of the human condition in future work, no doubt she’ll further develop her current strengths.
Declan Toohey is an Irish writer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Visual Verse, The Stockholm Review of Literature and The Kleksograph. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories.