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In search of Great-Aunt Pearl’s will: a black comedy of familial strife

26 June 2021

9:00 AM

26 June 2021

9:00 AM

Life on Other Planets Matt Cook

Lendal Press, pp.240, 12

Lendal Press has found a brilliant novelist in Matt Cook: funny, shrewd, satirical, disturbingly and entertainingly analytical in his psychology of character. This debut novel is narrated by a precocious 14-year-old, Benjamin Carter, whose family on his father’s side is having a collective nervous breakdown. Great-Aunt Pearl has died; her derelict house, ‘a riot of mould and malfunction’, must be sold for the benefit of family members, but first, within the chaotic mess, they must find her will.

Cook is master of the judicious turn of phrase. His imagination is detailed and original: Aunt Sally is the family’s ‘loveable, hopeless doormat’ who, when she blushes, looks like ‘a miserable pomegranate’; Pearl’s Miss Havisham-like bedroom is left to ‘whisper to itself’; the tendons of Ben’s dad’s neck stand out ‘like guitar strings’. Uncle Patrick ‘has failed upwards’.

Not many writers would see the possibilities of crafting a novel out of a house clearance, but Cook does. It is a black comedy of psychological depth. It appears that Pearl had been courted by an old admirer who was a captive, ideologically and physically, of a religious cult, the Church of the Holy Heavens, all of whose communications finish with an appeal to the chequebook: pre-death transference of worldly assets hastens the progress of the spirit to its assigned planet. The hocus-pocus of the cult is a worthy target for sharp satire.

The family’s problems over the elusive will are not resolved until the surprising end after a crematorium chapel service. Again, the ritual inside the funereal theatre provides a subject for Cook’s critical eye. The celebrant is a ‘simpering woman’ with a ‘prize-giving smile’ which conveys ‘well done you’ to Pearl’s corpse. There is much mouthing of platitudes.

Ben has no idea of how to behave. He fails to adopt an appropriate expression: ‘The muscles in my face seemed to have lost all signal from heart or brain.’ There is a persistent hum in the building, like a pacemaker buried in someone’s chest, or some even more sophisticated piece of technology designed ‘to give them, if not everlasting life, then as close as we could currently muster’.

Great-Aunt Pearl’s house might finally have become a wrecked curiosity shop and a complete headache for Ben’s collection of aunts and uncles, but for him and his creator it is a magnificent source of inspiration and originality.

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