The Barter by Siobhan Adcock
My rating: 3/5 cats
when is a ghost story not a ghost story??
why, right here!
this is another one of those books that is decent enough, but i am the wrong audience to appreciate it fully.
this book is comprised of two different narrative threads set in the same part of texas, one hundred years apart, following the domestic/maternal struggles of frustrated women.
the modern-day story is mostly great—bridget is a woman who has sacrificed her successful career in law to stay home and raise her daughter julie while her husband mark becomes the sole breadwinner. bridget misses the routine of the office and the path she thought her life would take. she loves her daughter with all her heart, but she is becoming very bored and tired, feeling isolated and unchallenged with the dulling routine of naps and baby talk. she has a social circle comprised of other women who have devoted themselves to their children—neighborhood women who have turned the martyrdom of motherhood into a philosophy akin to a religion. she is them but not-them; she feels superior to them and their small concerns, and is terribly lonely, as her husband works long hours to pick up the financial slack and they see each other infrequently. in his absence, suspicion and marital discord grows. also in his absence, a ghost grows.
you would think this would be the storyline to leave me flat—suburban mommy angst and marital strain is not something i have any context for personally, but i think she did a good job skewering the cult of mommyhood with bridget’s disdain while not necessarily making us sympathize with bridget overmuch, with all her complaints, woe and snark.
plus, a ghost.
but the other storyline, set a century before bridget’s, is ultimately less successful, even though it has all the elements that usually intrigue me. rebecca is a city girl, a doctor’s daughter, who marries her longtime friend; a farmer named john, and must acclimate both to the demands of marriage and the harsh realities of farm life. her mother died when rebecca was just a baby, and she was half-raised by her father’s cousin frau, who filled her little head with dark fairytales, weaving in stories of rebecca’s mother, and the sacrifices she made so rebecca could live—the “barter” of the title. rebecca does not take well to married life, she is full of sexual discomfort and rage, and after she gives birth to her son, she allows him to dominate all her time and focus, inexplicably shutting her well-meaning husband out entirely and becoming a fury of motherhood. this was a more difficult plot to follow and rebecca’s coldness to john and the ultimate trajectory of their relationship seemed underdeveloped. also, the fairytale element was distracting as we don’t know what is fabrication and what is true, which affects the entire tone of the book and how the reader is supposed to interpret what comes later.
which is the ghost. this ghost is more metaphor than scary, or even spooky. bridget and her daughter are the only ones who can see her, or sort of see her, and she is more of a stand-in presence for dissatisfaction than a true haunting. like the maybe-supernatural elements in rebecca’s storyline, the ghost is a distraction included more to make a point than to be a truly meaningful addition.
i liked the way the two stories eventually merged, but i felt it didn’t go far enough, and i didn’t understand what adcock was trying to do with the story. like bridget, i half-see the ghost, or the point, but it requires some work. i get the big picture—all the raw frustration of modern womanhood; the equally strong desire to be a good wife and mother, and still have a successful career, and i understand that motherhood is a glad sacrifice, where the fierceness of a mother’s love overrides all other concerns, and makes the hard choices easier, and i understand the frustration, across time, of the supposed limitations of women’s roles. View Spoiler »but i don’t understand the story within a story in the romanticizing of rebecca’s mother. if the first bit is meant to be purely fantasy, which reduces that part to an extended metaphor, wouldn’t it have been more elegant to write a pure fantasy-realm story on rebecca’s narrative that then infects bridget’s storyline? i don’t think i am being clear on that, because i am relying on months-old notes. but if that makes sense to anyone who has read it, talk to me. « Hide Spoiler
but one thing that really stuck in my craw was something she did on the very last page. it is this amateurishly weak writer-trick designed to create tension in the reader, but it is so cheap and transparent, it really irritated me.
the book was fine-not-great, but i am positive other readers will enjoy it more than i did. i have just seen ghosts and fairytale elements used more successfully and chillingly recently (Gretel and the Dark!!!!), and this one didn’t incorporate them as well as it could have. if you like women’s fiction with a twist, give it a shot!
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