The Unknown Bridesmaid
Margaret Forster
(Europa Editions)
Julia is a clinical social worker. Her speciality is young girls who run away from their families, or who fight incessantly with them, or are filled with anger, or who do damage to their brothers or sisters --- seemingly with no pangs of conscience.

Through her practice, we get to meet and interview various juvenile Mata Haris or Lady Macbeths. Sarah, for instance, ten years old, who has to care for her two younger sisters, tells Julia: "I hate it . . . I've got no life. I might as well not live. I'm just a slave."

She stops helping --- stays in bed. Julie's job: to inform her mother and stepfather that she's "on strike." She asks the girl:

    "What would your terms be?"


    "To end this strike. What would be reasonable, in your opinion?"

Sarah then tells her, and Julie "passed the news on."

Strike ended, problem solved.

It does seem awfully simple, but it's not. Anyone who has ever done family therapy learns that these things, instead of being "a problem," are more like a poison spaghetti stew. The problem doesn't easily get resolved, because it's dovetailed in with dozens of other family issues that have come down (some of them) through the ages, and threaten (some of them) to go on for even more generations.

For instance, we have Hera, who tries to strangle her older brother. "She said that she had only been experimenting, so see how easy it would be should she wish to strangle someone."

    The marks were on his neck for weeks. There was never an apology afterwards. Hera's mother wept as she described her daughter's callous behavior, saying she had no idea what gave rise to it . . . they were a happy family.

Hera broke another brother's wrist. "He broke his own wrist" she said. "I pushed him to the ground, and he put his arm out and his wrist broke." Julia says,

    "He didn't choose to fall . . . you pushed him, so you caused the fall that broke his wrist."

    "But all I did was push him," Hera said.

    "Hard," Julia said, "very hard, and you're much bigger than him."

No one knows why Hera does what she does. Julia watches her as she sits across from her. The girl seems to be counting the books behind the desk, or the tiles on the wall.

    Hera counted things . . . when making a display of ostentatious boredom during Julia's questioning, she was looking so intently, left to right, right to left, along the books on the shelf behind Julia that Julia knew she was counting them. Was she compulsive?

Was she compulsive? We'll never find out. Because Hera and her attempts at murder suddenly disappear from the book, vanishing in a wave of Julia's own memories. When she --- Julia --- killed her cousin's baby son. Quis custodes custodiet? Who is to care for those who are supposed to be caring for us?

§   §   §

The Unknown Bridesmaid could better have been titled The Bad Seed after the 1950s novel that tells of a sweet little girl named Rhoda who murders one of her classmates. He won a medal that she thought belonged to her. He was eight years old. So was she.

And the child Julia, in this novel, does everything she can to destroy her adopted family. She lies, she harasses her younger cousins, she writes and mails notes that seem to implicate her stand-in father, suggests he's in a secret love affair.

And --- at one point --- she tips up a baby carriage that holds Reggie, her newborn cousin, bashing his head. He's an ugly little baby; she can't stand him. This upending apparently causes Reggie to die.

That, we come to learn, is part of Julia's history. A murderer --- and now she's grown up so she can teach people how to deal with their children when they perform "antisocial" acts: stealing, sulking, murdering.

Julia pere, in her role as an adult, has a chance to attend a talk given by an ex-policewoman turned clinical psychologist. The woman tells of "her experience of being a police officer and how it had brought her into touch with the more violent crimes committed by children."

    It was always difficult, she said, for an adult to believe that a child could intend to kill somebody, 'intend' being the crucial word.

"She had, she went on, begun to think that she didn't understand how a child's mind worked, and this had led to her change of profession." The problem, she claims, is when we get a child who is not a child. She tells of children who "do not think in a childlike way." They are "mature beyond their years." Capable of murder.

But murder should be the province of only the mature and the wise, no?

§   §   §

It's a fascinating subject for a book. Hell, it's a fascinating topic for me. When I was ten, I damn near murdered my sister. She was thirteen. We were playing out in the front yard, and I had a .22. I put the safety on and aimed the rifle at her head and said "I'm gonna shoot you."

She batted it away and called me a goddamned idiot. "OK," I said, "I'll shoot the car." I aimed, pulled the trigger, and it went off. Evidently I hadn't pushed the safety fully in. It sent a bullet smashing through the near window (a beautiful flower sprouting on the glass) and on through to the far window (causing another, less impressive, flower to blossom).

I lowered the gun, and looked at the car, and then at my sister . . . and she looked at the car, and then she looked at me. We didn't say anything. We went back into the house where I put the .22 in the downstairs closet, leaning up against the wall, behind the mops and brooms. I never picked it up again.

When my Dad came home, he came up to my room and sat down on my bed. His face was not pale like ours had been, but was tomato red. He had high blood-pressure, probably a little higher that evening. "What do you mean?" he bellowed. "What do you mean?"

Excellent question, which I brooded on for the next fifty years. What did I mean?

§   §   §

Those things never go away. I look back on that afternoon so many years ago --- a beautiful October day, the leaves just beginning to turn, the sun slanting so gently as it does in the fall --- and think on the simple twist, her hand on the barrel, pushing it away. Without that one simple move our lives, perhaps just one minus one --- could have been so elaborately different.

Did I want to kill her? I suspect so. To the ten-year-old me, she was nothing but trouble. She ratted on me constantly. She scorned me, called me "sissy" or "crybaby." She never hid her loathing for me. I just wanted her to leave me alone.

After that afternoon, she did leave me alone. She no longer called me "crybaby," or "sissy;" no longer used that girl's name on me. After that, she stayed as far away from me as one can when you are living in the same house. She and I barely connected for the next decade. The joke that may have turned into a disaster worked, cleared the air as it were.

In fact the respect --- or better, the hands-off attitude --- that I got from her and all my brothers and sisters after that day might conceivably have turned me into a familial serial killer had things worked out differently.

§   §   §

These effects (and affects) all appear throughout The Unknown Bridesmaid. But the overall feeling is one of un-resolution. Julia the shrink, specializing in troublesome kids, is shown --- we see her in brief interaction with a number of sociopathic girls --- as being a measured professional, not unaware of the tricks that her trade uses to get through to those who would rather plow ahead in their route of delinquency without having some nosy shrink upsetting the apple cart.

It's only when Julie and her step-mother meet at the end that we learn that she didn't murder poor old Reggie in his fancy baby-buggy. Her step-mother tells her, "You've got it all wrong. He didn't die of a blow to the head at all." She goes on,

    Why did you think that? Little Miss Big Ears, that was you, always listening to grown-ups and getting everything wrong.

"It was a respiratory failure that killed him. You can see the coroner's report if you like."

§   §   §

I labored mightily to finish The Unknown Bridesmaid. It comes from Europa Editions, which has gifted us with a couple of can't-put-down novels, including Jane Gardam's terrific A Long Way from Verona, and Janet Jenkin's incomparable novelistic rendering of the last years of Noel Coward, Firefly.

But The Unknown Bridesmaid? A humorless, endlessly didactic picture of the Bad Seed, one who stirs neither interest as an agile evil-doer, not even as a psychological case-study.

Me? Did I ever get over the near-murder of my sister? Did she?

No. You never get over these things. She turned from being a vicious little rotter as a child to a full-time, aged, rather uninviting rotter as an adult. It's possible that the near-murder taught her a good lesson, though. I got her off my back for the rest of the time we had to put up with each other. True, if I had done her in it would probably have done me in as well, turning me into even more of a neurotic than I already am.

It was a good feint, and a helluva near miss. Though, I must say, if I had to do it all over again, I probably wouldn't.

--- Richard Saturday
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