Exploring the lives of unpleasant people in fiction always carries risks. Awfulness for its own sake or to hammer home a point, no matter how skillfully rendered, can easily grow tedious. Mere jabs at capitalism, materialism and the like will grate on the nerves of the intelligent reader the fifth or sixth time around. Nature and Necessity by Tariq Goddard visibly opens itself to these risks from the start, while at the same time paving the road ahead with an alluringly purposeful prose style that smacks of nineteenth-century narrative and seems to promise more.
Petula Montague, a vehement social climber who creates a name for herself throwing parties at The Heights, a country home bequeathed to her by a largely absent (then entirely absent) husband, inhabits the lion’s share of Nature and Necessity’s six hundred pages. She hatches cunning plots to ingratiate herself to the Yorkshire elite and beyond, all while engaging in the careless destruction of her relationships with her three children well into their adulthood. All of Petula’s unrelenting selfishness and coldness is laid out in gruesome detail, and the novel doesn’t do much to make a case either for some sympathetic flip side to her character or a compelling psychological why for her behavior. Instead, it opts for a complex exploration of a mind that might not normally be considered worth exploring.
Goddard makes someone as predictably horrible as Petula interesting by casting an intimate gaze upon her and her children, who seem to suffer endlessly from her cruelty. Two of them, Jasper and Evita, are from a previous marriage that Petula considers beneath her, and by her own admission she treats them differently as a result. Evita travels across Europe and becomes addicted to heroin before returning to The Heights to clash with her mother. Jasper, called “Jazzy,” refuses to leave home and instead moves into a smaller, run-down house on the property to become a groundskeeper of sorts and get in touch with his father’s working-class roots. Regan, the favored one, suffers from expectations of being like her mother that she fights hard to fulfill while at the same time trying not to threaten Petula’s sense of superiority.
The world Petula creates, which contains murderous intent, fatal accidents and large quantities of drugs and alcohol, seems appropriate to receive through Goddard’s classic-feeling, “civilized” prose, which raises questions about what’s normally considered civilized and why. At various times, Nature and Necessity teases readers with elements of romance, suspense or black comedy, of pure satire or tragedy…but it resists giving over entirely to any of these. It may be closest to something like gothic horror, but remains a bit low-key even for that. It keeps a cool head and delves patiently into the lives of the Montagues and their neighbors, leisurely unfolding like a kind of horrific modern Middlemarch with a lot more tears.
Interactions and events frequently border on the grotesque and the Buñuelian absurd where Petula’s social gatherings are concerned. At Regan’s coming-out party, the actor slated to be the new Doctor Who starts barking like a dog. Petula, having had her drink spiked with LSD by a man playing Mr. Darcy in a Pride and Prejudice adaption, believes that the meatloaf may have human feces on it and begins devouring it urgently for the sake of solving the mystery.
Beneath this surface ugliness, however, runs a deep, quiet beauty, embodied by the rural setting of The Heights. That we experience moments of tenderness and love through the eyes of Petula’s offspring, and even through Petula herself, doesn’t keep Nature and Necessity from being quite a harsh read (perhaps too harsh for some). But like a quality whiskey that makes your eyes water at first, Goddard’s novel has a rich afterglow.
This novel reminded me of Patricia Highsmith’s Edith’s Diary, specifically in terms of the dysfunctional relationship between the romantically forsaken mother and the sad layabout son, a condition that reads as oddly similar in these two cases, oddly since in the Highsmith novel the mother is a much more sympathetic character.
Like Edith’s Diary, however, Nature and Necessity prominently features a failure to pair imagination with reality. Evita imagines she’ll be able to pack up her mother’s influence and transfer it to her own interests elsewhere, but is at a loss for how to make this transformation succeed. Regan believes she’ll be rewarded with the same stoicism her mother possesses for rejecting a boy she genuinely loves—in other words, she hopes her heartache will be turned into power—but ends up regretting this choice years later. Jazzy thinks he has the ability to take matters into his own hands where his mother’s terrible reign over him is concerned, but he isn’t as cold-blooded as she. The children continually lose at a game that Petula invented, a game that Petula herself can only succeed at by playing on and borrowing the fantasies of others.
The plot movement of Nature and Necessity doesn’t come across as fatalistic so much as fixed, and it’s not eager to either to pin blame or announce impending doom upon humanity. While dragging its characters mercilessly through the mud, Goddard’s novel treats them with more care than might be expected considering its sharp satirical edge, approaching with an open mind a car wreck some might find too horrid to even gawk at. It’s hard to understand just what you’re signing on for with this book, but yes, this plane is definitely going somewhere, even if it’s also crashing.