In the Sweep of the Bay
by Cath Barton.
Louise Walters Books 2020
“… And in the end
The love you take
Is equal to the love you make.”
— The Beatles, ‘The End’ from the album Abbey Road
Cath Barton’s new novella, as much as her debut The Plankton Collector, focuses on individuals and their relationships; as before, she presents her tale as a series of vignettes which invite us to observe without intruding, to sympathise while yearning for resolutions which may or mayn’t come.
That she manages to offer us portraits which feel both authentic and honest is testament to her skill and makes the novella such a delight to read. What could have been an exercise in sheer nostalgia becomes a bittersweet reflection of hopes and dreams succeeding and failing, of love blighted by suspicion, and of truths both revealed and covered over.
This is the tale of a couple, Irene and Ted Marshall, who meet after the war at a dance, marry, have two girls, and live out their lives in Morecambe on the northwest coast. Theirs is the conventional life of their mid-century contemporaries, the man a breadwinner, the woman a homemaker; Ted designs for and runs the family ceramics firm while Rene, increasingly unhappy, falls into the role of a housewifely drudge. Naturally their lives interlace with others — their daughters and granddaughter, a young female employee at work, an Italian who manages a nearby Art Deco hotel, a man who tends the statue of the late comedian Eric Morecambe — in ways where even passing encounters have unforeseen and lasting effects.
The author gives us glimpses of key moments — rather like snapshots in albums covering family life — of chance meetings, worried glances, happy occasions, strained faces, intimacies and estrangements. There’s a strong sense of place in which our characters are positioned, whether in the cafés of Morecambe or Milan, on fells in the Lake District or in the Blackpool Tower ballroom for a broadcast of Strictly Come Dancing. Our focus is mostly on Rene and Ted and their increasingly melancholy marriage, but we also follow their daughters Dot and Peg and their grandchild Cecily, and wonder about Vincenzo and his friends Henry and Sandra, and about Ted’s young assistant Madge. Much hinges on what is not said as opposed to what is.
At times I was reminded of the work of author and illustrator Raymond Briggs, especially his creations Ethel and Ernest (based on his own parents) as well as Jim and Hilda Bloggs in When the Wind Blows: here was the same gentle evocation of past times and attitudes, of gradual or sudden changes that spelt promises but also uncertainties. In the Sweep of the Bay does a little more than that, however: the title suggests not just Morecambe Bay itself but also the chatty sweep who tends the statue, and time’s broom sweeping the timelines of disparate strangers together, from the 1950s to the present. I particularly liked the subtle tonal contrasts, from the greys of the seascapes and skies to the bright lights of the ballrooms, the painted ceramics and the vivid red of a coat in a shop window.
Told from different perspectives, over succeeding decades and in varied voices, this novella manages to make the reader care very much about individuals. If I felt a little let down it was in the slightly anticlimactic final scene which almost felt not so much clumsy or trite but more like an afterthought, especially following so many powerful vignettes. Maybe, though, it was a deliberate decision to give a final twist to the tale, a reflection of real life which only rarely provides ready resolutions. In that at least it rang as true as what preceded it, in the images and incidents which I feel sweeps the reader along.
A title read for Novellas in November, #NovNov
For those unfamiliar with the comedy duo Morecambe and Wise, this clip of one of their classic sketches may give you a flavour