“It is rare for any catastrophe to seem like a catastrophe right at the very beginning. Nearly always, in its early stages, it seems more like a nuisance; just one more of those tiresome interruptions which come so provokingly just when life is going smoothly and pleasantly.”
Meg is the baby of the family, but her sisters have always relied upon her to straighten out their lives. When their seaside holiday goes awry, it’s no surprise that they summon Meg. Somehow, oldest sister Mildred has ended up renting the cottage where she honeymooned with her ex-husband Paul fifteen years ago, when she turned him in to police for murder. Now she’s convinced that she hears his footsteps outside at night, but that couldn’t possibly be true…could it?
Uncle Paul is a darkly comic domestic thriller that is deeply intelligent about sisterhood and the ever-shifting relationship between past and present. These three women have subconsciously continued playing the roles assigned to them by fate all those years ago: Mildred, the perpetual victim; ineffectual Isabel; and Meg, who always wants to save the day. Over the course of the holiday, the sisters must reckon with the ways “Uncle Paul” changed how they relate, not only to each other, but also to the men in their lives.
Meg was just a child fifteen years ago. She barely remembers what happened, but soon comes to realize how profoundly these events have shaped her adult life. Her charming new boyfriend Freddy thinks she’s too involved with her family. “Quarrel with them,” he advises. “Quarrel with them now, while you’re still young. If you leave it till you’re older, you’ll find that you owe them all so much money that you can’t afford to.” It’s difficult to be independent, though, when her sisters need her so much. The possible return of Uncle Paul gives her a chance to right the wrongs of the past, but it may be at the cost of her own life.
This is the sort of story that couldn’t take place today. Much of the suspense comes from the sisters’ uncertainty regarding Paul’s current whereabouts—they don’t know if he’s alive or dead, in or out of prison. He might even have adopted a new identity. He could be anyone.
Uncle Paul is a slow burn, establishing a family in crisis, then sitting back and waiting patiently for them to reach their breaking point. The sheer mundane awfulness of their holiday would be enough on its own to accomplish this. Isabel’s hapless attempts to deal with her spirited children, her new husband, and their decrepit rented caravan are tragically relatable. The novel perfectly captures the frenzied preparations and negotiations that surround each excursion, a series of glum trips to the beach or the pier, with the occasional jackpot of real enjoyment that empowers the characters, like gamblers on a hot streak, to keep on trying.
In addition to Freddy and her family, Meg must contend with the typical stock characters to be found in any seaside hotel. The standout is Cedric, a know-it-all child who earns the ire of the adults by refusing their offers of jolly outings. He would rather stay back at the hotel studying bus schedules. They all would, of course. “Everybody knew that they couldn’t go on sitting like that much longer, for this was a holiday, and they mustn’t waste it sitting about in the hotel.” One day, the possibility of rain seems to promise a deliverance from the pressure of having fun.
“Oh dear, I’m afraid it does look rather unsettled,” exclaimed a pale little woman, trying to disguise the satisfaction with which she unfolded again the embroidery which she had been dutifully putting away. “I fear” (with ill-suppressed eagerness) “I fear we must resign ourselves to an afternoon indoors.”
“I fear so” … “Very threatening” … “I noticed the glass had fallen” … The chorus of guilty hope was swelling; library books were reopened with stealthy relief; feet were replaced on footstools; knitting needles resumed their comfortable clicking.
Alas, all it takes to end this single moment of joy is one guest denying that it will rain. “No one’s moral courage could stand up to this.”
There is no room for Meg at the hotel, so she must sleep in the cottage, where she goes through terrifying experiences over the next three days. Even by daylight an eerie horror hangs over the cottage, the very design of which seems planned to trap the unwary. At night, it’s nearly unbearable.
The silence. But, of course, there wasn’t any silence. There never is, when once you begin to listen as Meg was listening now. There was not a board, nor a door, in the whole place that was not faintly moving; stirring, swelling, creaking in its death-long progress through the decades towards final and utter decay. Outside the wind had fallen, but not to absolute stillness; an enveloping haze of sound, devoid of quality or definition, made Meg remember all over again the gigantic, well-nourished weeds that filled the cottage garden and grew, luxuriant and satisfied, to the very doors. And over all, yet somehow obliterating nothing, was still the sound of the slackening rain on the low roof, light and continuous, like the pattering of tiny, busy birds.
The book’s apparent focus on trivialities and domestic concerns disguises all the ways that fear has crept into the everyday lives of its characters. Uncle Paul is a hidden land mine, waiting to explode at the slightest pressure, as when a seemingly lighthearted discussion of detective stories provokes a strong reaction from Isabel. “Why is it assumed that a wife will automatically protect her husband—or a girl her fiancé—if she thinks he’s a murderer? Doesn’t anybody realize how—how plain terrified she’s be? I don’t care how much she loves him; if a thing like that happened she’d just simply be terrified. She’d have no other feelings at all.” In the aftermath, Meg must explain to Freddy about Uncle Paul, surprising herself in the process.
“If you had found yourself in Mildred’s place, married—or as good as married—to this fascinating scoundrel—would you have gone to the police? And given evidence against him?”
No one could have been more surprised than Meg to find that she did not need to reflect on her answer for even a moment.
“Of course I wouldn’t!” she cried. “I’d have kept it dark. I’d have told lie after lie. And if another murder was necessary to help him escape, I’d have committed it with him! There!”
“You wouldn’t, of course,” he commented. “When it came to the point, you’d behave like any ordinary, sensible young woman. But it’s pleasant—yes, it’s quite remarkably pleasant—to know that, in your inexperience, you think you would.”
This conversation is actually the key to what Fremlin is exploring in Uncle Paul and she is willing to take her ideas all the way to the limit. Most readers probably feel the same way as Isabel and Mildred. If you think your husband is trying to kill you, the smart thing is to call the police and change the locks—don’t go for a midnight walk with him along the cliffs. But aren’t the most courageous acts the most foolish ones? As Meg reflects, it is enormously brave to believe in love, to believe in the people we love. Every time we invite someone new into our lives, it’s a leap into the dark, and darkness may be exactly what results.
Throughout the novel, Meg worries that she is being too trusting, allowing too many people access to her life and emotions. This is a common theme of holiday mysteries, the danger of exposing oneself to people who seem familiar because they are around every day, but are really strangers.
What Celia Fremlin so deftly demonstrates in Uncle Paul is that the same could be said about any person in one’s life. A sister or husband is no less strange than a fellow tourist—that feeling of false security is built on the same foundation of shared meals and outings, of time spent under the same roof. A loved one may betray, while a mere acquaintance could be a life-saver if given the chance. When it is so impossible to tell, Fremlin suggests, the greatest danger comes, not from giving too much of oneself to others, but from giving too little.
I really enjoyed this novel – it is an excellent suspense novel of fear and paranoia – though not overly so – most of the time Fremlin lulls us into a false sense of security. The suspense loving reader might well start to wonder where the suspense will come from. In this I think Fremlin is rather clever – she doesn’t over do the menace – the reader instead begins to get swept away by the fairly straightforward story of three sisters on holiday – domestic matters, odd characters they meet, fortune tellers, days on the beach. However, lurking just beneath the surface, is the possibility that something much darker might be happening, or about to happen. Gradually the reader starts to ask questions, as the tension builds in the final fifty pages or so to a brilliant heart-stopping conclusion.
Celia Fremlin wrote clever, tense domestic thrillers. All of them are short and sharp, very well-plotted with clues you only see afterwards – and funny, so witty. Fremlin had a knack for brilliant conversations, and for the endless irritations that people impose on one another. Her social observation is excruciating and brilliant.