Best known for the Adrian Mole books, the late Sue Townsend wrote a variety of other interesting novels, memoirs and plays. I picked up this one after Beth Jellicoe mentioned it on her piece about Muriel Sparks’ Loitering with Intent, the latter certainly one of my faves amongst her many fine novels—and a book that will appeal to almost any writer. What intrigued me was the thumbnail description: ‘In her underrated novel Rebuilding Coventry (1988), Sue Townsend tells the story of a housewife and mother, Coventry, who commits a murder and escapes to London without even a handbag.’
Even better, she commits murder with an Action Man. It makes me want to be more ambitious about murder weapons.
As it’s Townsend, there’s a lot of great satire along the way. You’ll recognise most of the characters along the way: the woman who has to look down on everyone, the man who has to pretend he’s had every woman, the husband who has never thought anything about his wife as a human being—and some totally bizarre characters who’ll make you laugh out loud, especially the eccentric couple near Russell Square.
Coventry commits murder in the Midlands and then flees to London, where she has never been in her life. A big part of the novel is her suddenly figuring out how one lives in London not only without cash but also without any kind of identification. Even in 1988, however, there are a huge number of people doing that (and more now). While there are a lot of humorous moments, that’s not part of it. Townsend doesn’t make light of life on the streets.
The most fascinating aspect is how in alternating chapters, Townsend takes us back to the Midlands to see how everything changes in Coventry’s wake. So, your mother/wife/friend/daughter is a murderer. Did you know she had it in her? Do you even wonder why it happened? Is this really all about you?
She shares a cardboard box with a woman who calls herself Dodo who turns out to be the sister of a very important cabinet minister whom they visit on Dodo’s birthday. Behind the scenes, as one suspects, the posh people all proudly give way to anti-Semitism, racism and outright fascism. Because Coventry is pretty (having been washed and plopped into an evening gown), so they think she’s one of them – at least until Dodo starts threatening to put their heads on spikes along Westminster Bridge. The two are packed off to the Ritz for the night.
There’s a wonderful dream sequence that we slide seamlessly into, slowly getting into greater absurdity until we arrive at, ‘The front door is opened by Les Dawson wearing a pantomime cook’s costume.’ A lot of the story feels as surreal as you would expect life after a sudden murder might be. Change is the only constant.
For Coventry’s husband, it’s the Flitcraft effect: as Hammett wrote, ‘He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.’ His world was built around his wife managing everything so he could devote himself to his turtles. He’s mostly annoyed: ‘Derek wondered why all of the women he knew appeared to be going mad. It wasn’t just members of his own family. The girls at work were getting stroppy: demanding things, more money, improved conditions, flexi-hours.’ His only aim is to put that life back on, thank you very much.
Coventry has the advantage of not being able to return. Murder might be the best thing that ever happened to her…