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10th Grade202432 Stories4th of July99 DaysA Change in AltitudeA Demon in My ViewA Dream of WolvesA Falling KnifeA Finely Tuned Apathy MachineA Heart of StoneA Life Lived RidiculouslyA Multitude of SinsA Parting GiftA Question of BloodA Quiet PlaceA Red Heart of MemoriesA River SutraA Short History of Tractors in UkrainianA Slight Trick of the MindA Stir of BonesA Thousand Miles from NowhereA Voyage Long and StrangeA Wedding in December About a BoyAbraham LincolnAcross the River and Into the TreesActs of GodAfrican PsychoAfter DarkAfter YouAfter You'd GoneAfterwardsAgenda for MurderAliens in the Prime of Their LivesAll Alone in the UniverseAll Families Are PsychoticAll in the MindAll the Way HomeAltered LandAlternatives to SexAmanda's WeddingAmelia RulesAmericaAmerica AmericaAmnesiaAmong the DepartedAn Object of BeautyAngelsAngry Youth Comix #2AnimosityAnne SextonAre You Experienced?Aristotle and Poetic JusticeAristotle DetectiveArlington ParkArtemis FowlAs Hot as It Was You Ought to Thank MeAsking For MurderAtonementAway Laughing on a Fast CamelBabylon and Other StoriesBad BoyBad SeedBag Of BonesBalancing ActsBarbara the Slut and Other PeopleBeach RoadBeat the ReaperBeautiful GirlsBed of RosesBefore I Go to SleepBefore the FrostBeg the QuestionBeginner's GreekBellyBeneath the SkinBenedictionBest New American VoicesBig BrotherBilly and GirlBiteBlack & WhiteBlack HelicoptersBlack Market TruthBlameBlanketsBleed for MeBlind SightBlonde FaithBlood, Salt, WaterBlueprints for Building Better GirlsBody SurfingBoneMan's DaughtersBoneyardBoneyardBoomsdayBorder CrossingBoth Ways Is the Only Way I Want ItBoysBracketBrain TrustBrava, ValentineBreaking Out of BedlamBreathing UnderwaterBrick LaneBridge of SighsBridget JonesBridget Jones's DiaryBrief Interviews with Hideous MenBruisesBrŁselBullyBurn, Bitchy, BurnButterflyBy BloodBy The Sea ShoreCalled to KillCanadaCanvasCaricatureCase HistoriesCellCemetery DanceChange of HeartChangesChasing the DimeChild 44Cinema PanopticumCinnamon KissCircle NineCity of the LostClay's WayClose toYouClose Your EyesCloud 9 AffairCoincidenceCold CaseCold HitCold in HandCollected StoriesCome Up and See Me SometimeComfort and JoyCompulsionConfessions of a ShopaholicConfessions of an Ex-GirlfriendConsider LoveCouch FictionCrispinCross CountryCruddyCrumpleCutCypherDaddy's GirlsDakotaDamageDancing After HoursDanger in High PlacesDanger! 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Terence Cave is an antiques dealer in the historic city of York in northern England. He lives surrounded by the past, and his professional interactions with it are positive: he restores, mends, preserves. His own past, however, is not so easily managed. When he was a child his own mother committed suicide. His wife was killed during a robbery at his antiques shop, an event in which his son Reuben, then a baby, played an unwitting part. Fifteen years later Reuben himself dies when a dangerous stunt that other boys have goaded him into risking goes wrong. Left as single father to Reuben's twin sister Bryony, Terence must try to manage his grief, rebuild his own life and protect his remaining child. The Possession of Mr. Cave is the story of how that latter aim goes tragically, destructively wrong as Terence becomes possessed by what he wishes most entirely to possess.
When his wife died, Terence held his son responsible. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, he tells us, 'I wished for dreadful things ... Terrible exchanges of fate'. Subconsciously he continues to blame Reuben, and finds justification for his feelings as the years go by in Reuben's awkwardness, his lack of academic ability, his inarticulacy, his lack of social skills (a problem intensified by the prominent birthmark on his face). In contrast, Bryony is beautiful, gifted, an academic high achiever, and her father gives her whatever she wants: a place an elite school, music lessons, a horse, holidays. One of the most moving passages in the book is when Terence gets down the family photograph albums and leafs through them, realizing as he does so that as the years go by and the children grow up, Reuben literally slips out of the picture while Bryony increasingly dominates it: 'as I kept flicking through the pages, I noticed his gradual disappearance ... He would be caught, running in the background. A distant, blue-duffel smudge'.
Mr. Cave gives his daughter what she wants for as long as what she wants does not conflict with what he is sure is good for her. When she wants to go out late at night, smoke, drink, socialize with unsuitable friends, meet boys her father does not approve of, things become much more difficult. It is the process of growing up that brings Mr. Cave to his crisis of possession. As Bryony leaves childhood behind and becomes a young woman who desires, and is desired, in ways he cannot understand and fears, so his efforts to hold back time and prevent the daughter he loved leaving him for ever (as he sees it) become more extreme and desperate. For him, Bryony is 'Petal' – the pet-name of childhood, repeated throughout the book and becoming steadily more hideously incongruous every time he uses it. In one scene, superbly written to balance upon the knife-edge between comedy and tragedy, Cave follows Bryony to a nightclub, blackmails the doorman into letting him in and lurks, a preposterous figure, in the background among the drinking, dancing teenagers. He watches Bryony, seeing in her 'The girl who simultaneously was my daughter and also the person who was destroying my daughter ... You were my work of art, my priceless Petal, yet you clearly viewed yourself as no more than a cheap postcard'.
In the wake of Reuben's death, Terence is increasingly haunted: by his sense that he failed his son and his guilt at losing him, and by his fear that he will fail his daughter and will lose her as well. That haunting appears to take a literal turn, with Cave's conviction that the dead Reuben is a demonic presence in his life, taking revenge on Bryony and on him for his neglect of him during his life. Fear of the dead and fear for the living drives him to ever more obsessive efforts to exert control over Bryony's life, efforts that end in tragedy but also in a kind of liberation, albeit one that can only be obtained through destruction. Cynthia, Bryony's grandmother, warns him: 'She needs her freedom, Terence. You can't suffocate her.' His response is that 'Freedom's a myth, Cynthia. There's only safety.'
Matt Haig has written a powerful narrative, skillfully plotted and beautifully written, which speaks to some of the deepest obsessions of our own time. It is a book that will continue to haunt the reader long after the final page has been turned.
© 2010 Ralph Harrington
Ralph Harrington, Ph.D. is a historian who has researched, lectured and published on medical history and the history of trauma, among other topics. His web site is at http://www.greycat.org
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