The slow disclosure of plot, at first frustrating, becomes one of the greatest pleasures of this excellent book. Painted with colour and wit, there emerges a whole host of absurdist characters clamouring for Bina’s attention. Alongside the demonic Eddie, who appears one day in a ditch outside Bina’s house and then refuses to leave, there are a group of “Crusties” – made up of “the socialists, the Marxists, the laryngists” – who take up residence in her backyard; a mysterious Tall Man, part of an even more mysterious group whose names are redacted; and, most surprisingly of all, David Bowie, who comes to Bina in her dreams.
Bina is adamant: she is a “modern woman with modern thoughts on modern things”, forthright and practical. Yet Bina is a novel of wilful obfuscation and piecemeal revelations. Whether this is a source of beguiling, cantankerous irony or annoying quirk will depend on the reader. In a novel that works so hard to make older women visible – and their stories feel urgent – it seems counterproductive to embrace a form so repetitive it borders on the doddery.
At its raw best, Bina captures the neural loops of a grief-snagged brain with crow-black humour. Its protagonist is haunted by an inescapable, wrenching paradox: “Those who we want shut of, linger. Those who should remain, don’t.” It’s not a joyful, comforting conclusion, but that was never the point.
Most writers, it spoils nothing to suggest, would be tempted into sentimentality by the ticklish ethics behind the Group’s work. But like Martin John, Bina treats problems of social care slantwise, with a caustic charm liable to leave you blindsided by its most painful turns. Still, you can’t help but have a few doubts about the peculiarly spotlit variety of circumspection we’re treated to en route, which involves a fair bit of throat-clearing (“She wanted gone from Eddie. From Eddie, Bina wanted gone”) in tandem with near-comical intolerance of readerly restlessness (“I am not interested in appealing to you. I am not you”).