Candia McWilliam published three novels over a seven-year period starting in the late 1980s: A Case of Knives (1988), A Little Stranger (1989) and Debatable Land (1994). These were followed in 1997 by a collection of short stories, Wait Till I Tell You. I wrote about that collection in Talk about books almost two years ago. Since 1997, there’s been no more fiction from McWilliam, though in 2010 she published a memoir, What to Look for in Winter, which I haven’t read.

I decided I ought to read her fiction when I read a review by her in (I think) the Independent on Sunday, of (I think) Roy Hattersley’s The Maker’s Mark (1990). It was not a favourable review. A friend commented that McWilliam’s first book had been titled A Case of Knives, and that several of them seemed to be stuck in Hattersley’s back.

A Case of Knives consists of the first-person narratives of four characters. The first, told by the eminent, recently knighted heart surgeon, Lucas Salik, is the longest; the two middle narratives are of roughly equal length and the final one is just 8 pages long, a kind of epilogue.

Lucas is infatuated with a much younger man, Hal, who is not, however, quite as much younger as he claims. Hal, indeed, is in several respects not at all what he seems. In some others, he is very much what he seems to some of the other characters, but Lucas is blind to those appearances. Hal and Lucas are not lovers, not by Lucas’s choice, but the younger man accepts gifts and hospitality from the older one.

When Hal tells Lucas that he wants to get married — “Married to a girl … one of those things with dressing tables” (p. 24) — Lucas is not dismayed, though he has no intention of simply letting Hal go. He will find the suitably unsuitable “girl”. As he put it to himself, his aim is to give the young man “a doll for him to break” (p. 24), before coming back to Lucas.

The young woman he selects is Cora Godfrey, 20 years old, unusually tall, broke and with a pressing reason of her own for thinking that Hal might be a suitable marriage partner, even though she distrusts and despises him on sight. Cora’s a more complicated character than she appears to either Lucas or Hal. She’s at once diffident and resourceful, introverted and (to judge by the way she is dressed when Lucas first spots her) an exhibitionist. She’s intelligent and perceptive but with some curious blind spots.

At the end of the novel, Hal says of her:

I got fond of her in a way. She was a bad liar and blind as a bat and talked too much, but she did have what the visitors here call a low self-image, and I love that. It’s something to stand on, it gives you a little rise. (p. 262)

This hardly does her justice, of course. On his first meeting with Cora, Lucas is more willing to admit to puzzlement, though he remains confident that the enigmatic young woman is suitable for his purposes.

I felt that she was either drunk or possessed. She did not know me and she was making her reputation hostage to me. I could not see why she spoke in this appalling way … I wondered how this hussy could have struck me earlier in the evening as dovelike. (p. 27)

And later, when she’s come back to his flat with him for something to eat, he asks her:

“Do you hear the terrible things you say? I could have gathered from your callow lineshooting this evening that you were a whore, a drudge or a masochist. I am sure you are none of these. I think you are just a young thing awaiting your vocation, and, just as your brothers have no war, you have no arranged marriage, no baby for your fifteenth birthday.” (p. 34)

One of Cora’s more noticeable blind spots is that she fails to notice until quite late in the story that Lucas is gay, and until she meets Hal she thinks of Lucas as a potential husband, though he’s much older than she is.

Lucas has met Cora through his old friend Anne Cowdenbeath, a wealthy Scots widow who has a large house in Scotland and another home in London. Anne is horrified at his intention to use Cora in his plan to keep Hal, and initially refuses to help him. But Lucas knows Anne’s potentially very damaging secret (because she told him) and is willing to twist his old friend’s arm rather than lose Hal: “I ask you to permit me to blackmail you” (p. 71). Surprisingly, the blackmail doesn’t seem to damage their friendship irreparably.

Cora has several parttime jobs, which cumulatively take up more of her time than a fulltime one would. One of these is in a charity shop run by Angelica Coney, known to some, including Cora, as “Angel”. Angel does not feature centrally in any of the four narratives but the reader learns that she is a malevolent manipulator who is behind most of the viciousness in the story. She is an antivivisectionist who campaigns militantly for animal rights.

Angel wants Lucas dead because the heart surgery that he carries out depends on animal experimentation. It’s at her urging that the would-be killer knifes Lucas while he is cottaging, resulting in the surgeon’s months-long hospitalization. Before, when Anne’s husband, Mordred, shot himself on finding out that he had cancer, Angel told their young son, Alexander, that it was Anne who had killed his father. She successfully encouraged the boy to kill himself.

When an employee of Angel’s charity is arrested for vandalizing a furrier’s shop, destroying the value of all the man’s assets, Angel comments “These people are no better than animals” (p. 231), a statement calculated to be taken in a different sense from the one she means.

McWilliams’s second novel, A Little Stranger (1989), is the shortest of the three, at just 125 pages. It’s another first-person narrative but this time there’s only one narrator, a wife and mother. She has a four-year-old son named John, a rich, busy husband named Solomon and a rather grand house on a country estate. Her old nanny is leaving, so she takes on a new one to look after John. The new nanny, Margaret Pride, is in many ways the narrator’s opposite.

Where the narrator — we learn quite late in the story that her forename is Daisy — likes “fresh, clean food, pickled and salted to an alerting brackishness” (p. 36) — earlier, she has mentioned “black olives, of the type which is wrinkled and black as tar on a summer road”, and the need to avoid splashing “smoked roes or raw steak or the vinegar of capers” (p. 14) on the periodicals that he husband might want to read — Margaret favours “strange foods made for consumers addicted to bulk and sweetness but desirous of no nourishment” (p. 35). She shops for “weightless, hefty meals of cloud and promise” (p. 36).

Daisy soon becomes pregnant with a second child and, as we learn at the end of the story, her eating habits change. She still likes the salted, pickled and strong-flavoured foods she always has, but she consumes a lot more of them, in addition to some of the sweeter foods that appealed to Margaret. One night, alone in the house while John, Soloman and Margaret are in London, she eats:

Seven loaves with chocolate hail, white milk bread paved with butter and the pastel sugared aniseed the Dutch call little mice, mob caps of jelly and lakes of cream, egg sandwiches for a team of hungers, and shoals of herring, pink, silver, white, grey, and the morbid maroon which is so delicious eaten with warm yellow potatoes and cold soured cream off a hot spoon. (p. 126)

She is supposed to be eating for two, but she hasn’t been able to stop there. At the same time, Margaret has slimmed down noticeably, to Daisy’s surprise. The nanny is suffering from bulimia, something she understandably tries to hide from everybody except young John.

After the crisis has passed, Daisy recognizes that she has been so self-absorbed that it has blinded her to a threat that should have been obvious: “I had taken myself seriously, but had not at any point taken seriously that self.”

Until the end, it hasn’t been clear that this is a story (not wholly, but in large part) about eating disorders, just as, in the first novel, the reader hardly notices until Lucas’s attacker is about to go on trial, that all the significant male characters in the book are gay and that they are living under the ever present threat of HIV, at a time before effective treatments were widely available. McWilliam is adept at deflecting attention from her most significant themes.

Finally, Daisy admits that she should have been wary of Margaret from the start:

What was the strangest thing of all? I took her in because I hated her on sight, and was ashamed of myself for doing so … Together we had turned the gingerbread house of family life into the smelt blood and ground bones of the most cruel tales. (p. 135)

The third novel is a departure from the first two in several respects. Unlike them, it doesn’t include any first-person narrative. It’s the story of six people on a yacht, sailing from Tahiti to New Zealand. Reviewing the novel in the London Review of Books, Janette Turner Hospital wrote:

… if her first two novels could be said to be explorations of the mysterious and elusive nature of evil, this one is certainly about the even more mysterious and elusive nature of goodness.

Clearly, it would not be an exaggeration to describe the first novel’s Angelica as evil, and Margaret in A Little Stranger turns out to be “a scheming fantasist” (p. 123) who, though she’s much less blameworthy than Angelica, makes a conscious attempt to destroy a family. Debatable Land doesn’t include a comparably malevolent character. The closest it comes is in Logan Urquhart, the wealthy Scots-American (born in Glasgow, resident, when not at sea, in New York), the owner of the yacht which his wife named Ardent Spirit.

Logan is a contradictory character. Until the terrible and prolonged climactic storm — which is exactly what he has been looking for — Logan is controlled and disciplined, insisting that everything is secured and tidied away, every eventuality prepared for. He knows that the ocean is unforgiving, and regularly reminds the crew of the “capacity of the sea to do harm” (p. 210). When the storm comes, though, his behaviour changes:

Purblind, bedevilled and bewitched by his affinity with the sea, Logan was plunged into himself. He could see nothing but the dark. He felt the weight of the sea on the boat and the weight of the boat on himself. He made no weak pact with the sea, nor a bargain for peace … He spent hours in the bow, looking out over the sea as it did nothing but increase in height and violence. Logan shouted at it, not in defiance, it seemed, but pleasure. He surveyed the huge waters and reduced sky as though they bore a harvest for him. (p. 209)

It’s as if he’s been looking for a challenge, to prove himself. The most experienced crewmember, Nick, thinks that this is mad, and hopes that they will get through the storm before Logan “cracks”:

Nick knew that the sea had no will, no self, that to give it personality was to underestimate its power. (p. 210)

But when a boom, loosened by the waves sweeping over the yacht, hits another crewmember, Sandro, on the side of the head, making him lose consciousness and bleed from his eye sockets, Logan is suddenly calm, quiet and thinking clearly:

The raving, exalted hero figure who had been all risk and mania ten minutes before had gone. In itself this was the passing of a storm. Logan seemed to have found the courage to be quiet. (p. 214)

The character at the centre of the novel is Alec Dundas, a visual artist (painter) from Edinburgh, who has exaggerated his experience of sailing to get a place on the voyage. Through his memories we learn about his parents and childhood, his friendship with an elderly brother and sister and the beginnings of his relationship with nurse named Lorna.

At one point, when the voyage has unexpectedly (and briefly) come to seem like a holiday, Alec reflects that “He had come on this boat to repossess his innocence” (p. 172). Earlier, he has confided in Nick that his relationship with Lorna has suffered. He has been attracted to other women and she, seeing this, has resorted to heavy drinking. She has had a son, Sorley, who is not Alec’s biological child, but whom he loves. Alec tells Nick that Lorna had almost died of not taking herself serious,ly:

“… We were the lot that took other people seriously in a rather priggish way and then got selfish.” (p. 100)

Logan asks Alec to fly from Bora Bora back to Tahiti to finish some business on Logan’s behalf with his bank. Logan suggests that Elspeth should go with him. While Alec and Elspeth are away, Logan begins to sleep with the boat’s cook, a very young Englishwoman named Gabriel. He is thinking of Gabriel as his next wife and was presumably hoping that some kind of relationship would develop between Alec and Elspeth that would make it easier for Logan to extricate himself from the marriage.

Alec and Elspeth get on well but don’t become lovers. They’re both Scots, he from Edinburgh, of course, and she from the formerly “debatable land” near the border with England. When they have helped to restore Sandro to consciousness after the storm, Alec regrets “not having been homesick enough to hold her in that bleak hotel” (p. 213–4) in Tahiti. But by this time he knows that he’s going home to Lorna and Sorley. In the aftermath of the storm, Nick has told him that Sorley is his son:

“She made him for you. Take him. Or are you still so attached to letting life go? It’s Lorna you were hunting down, like it’s Scotland you found at the back end of the Pacific”, said Nick. (p. 215)

During the storm Gabriel has decided that she’s a homesick land person (as Alec is too); and Elspeth has discovered that she’s not willing to let Logan go as easily as she had seemed to be, so it appears that their marriage will continue, if not quite as before.

It seems to me that, without an obvious villain, Debatable Land is a more ambitious novel than its two predecessors. To say that isn’t at all to disparage the first two books. And, if a villain is insisted upon for the third, Alec himself must be a candidate: a philanderer who admits to having graduated to selfishness from priggishness. Indeed, it could be said that all of McWilliam’s protagonists are partly to blame for the bad things that happen to them. A Little Stranger’s Daisy lacerates herself for her failure to perceive and avoid the threat to her family. All of the narrators of A Case of Knives (except possibly Anne) have behaved badly.

Editions: A Case of Knives, Abacus (Sphere Books) paperback, 1989; A Little Stranger, Picador paperback, 1990; Debatable Land, Picador paperback, 1995. All ellipses added.