The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year by Sue Townsend

Sue Townsend is a rare animal.  She’s a member of that exclusive band of British writers whose works have been piled high and prominently positioned for so long that we can no longer imagine a bookshop without them.  Added to this, her consistent warmth and humour and unmistakeable Britishness means that – at some stage on the long road since The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 ¾ – she’s also been awarded the comfy cardigan and cosy slippers of a national treasure.  Many people opening a Sue Townsend novel are likely to do so with the same curious smile that they’d greet the new book of an old personal friend and they’re certain to have a pretty good idea of what they are about to get:  a plot centred around a comic failure who struggles to cope with the absurd mundanities of modern life and lives in or close to Leicester.

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year does not create any confusion.  At the start of the novel Leicester housewife, Eva Beaver, stands in her kitchen and evaluates her life now that her teenage twins have spread their wings and flown off for the heady thrills of Leeds University’s Maths Department.  And what Eva decides is that her life really doesn’t amount to much.  So she does what we all want to do on these depressing occasions.  She goes to bed.  The only difference, of course, is that she stays there for an entire year.

The Woman Who Went To Bed for a Year Sue Townsend review
The Woman Who Went To Bed for a Year
Sue Townsend
448pp, Penguin / Michael Joseph, £18.99

And this is why so many of us love Sue Townsend.  Her characters teeter on the brink of utter ridiculousness and yet somehow manage to retain a plausibility and a sense of everyday ordinariness which allows us to recognise them and sometimes, horribly, to identify with them.

Eva Beaver’s husband, Dr Brian Beaver is an astronomer who spends all his time in a complex of elaborate sheds in their vast back garden.  He has no friends but he does have a lover called Titania.  When Eva refuses to get out of bed and make his dinner, Brian phones her mother to announce that Eva is having a nervous breakdown.  Eva’s mother, Ruby, is unable to help Brian with his tea because she is holding a perm party with her friends and half an hour away from having her solution rinsed off.

To some readers, this may seem like whimsy; ground already well-covered by Mike Leigh in Abigail’s Party.  Yes, the details are thrown-in for fun.  The name Eva Beaver was surely chosen for a quick laugh.  And then there are the twins, Brian Junior and Brianne.  And when Eva starts screaming in the background while her husband is talking on the phone, he avoids any embarrassment by explaining that the television is on and somebody has ‘just won a lot of money on Eggheads.’  But, like Abigail’s Party, the jokes rain down thick and fast over an increasingly dark world.  However much we all may loathe Eva’s vain and stultifyingly hopeless husband, he does seem to have a point.  The story, albeit from a comedic perspective, is quite clearly one of breakdown and debilitating depression.  At one point, Eva even hints that she is fed up with being alive.

But, under Townsend’s spell, the reader is never in any danger of feeling depressed.  This book made me snort out loud from page 2 – when Brian says, ‘For Christ’s sake, Eva!  You look like post-war Poland!’- and the jokes just kept on coming.  Ultimately, Townsend’s message to the reader is always a positive one.  Yes, Leicester and every other identikit urban centre in Britain is boring.  Yes, modern life is rubbish.  Yes, we’re all a bit down-trodden and ridiculous but we’re heroic too.  And whilst Eva lives out our laziest fantasies and decides that she’s going to opt for a life in bed, we very quickly distance ourselves from her and arrive instead at the surprising understanding that a bed-based rebellion isn’t actually all that great.