Review: Good Behaviour; Molly Keane

“Yes, we’ll have to put a stop to this bookworming. No future in that.” (4 stars)

Source- personal copy

Published by Virago Press, this edition in 2011. Originally published in 1981.

Hardback edition is 291 pages. 

After a dramatic, bleakly humorous opening to this book where the significance of the rabbits on this gorgeous book cover quickly became apparent (!), I then found that its pace slowed somewhat and I actually struggled to enjoy it for a fair few chapters. I even contemplated putting it down and returning to it when I was in a different frame of mind. 

I persevered with it though. And I’m glad I did. Not just because it is on my Guardian Definitive Reads list, but because it was a memorable, engaging story and an intriguing glimpse into another era. I have genuinely loved all of the Virago Designer Classics I have picked up so far- they are all so evocative of times gone by which is really fascinating for me to learn about. 

Indeed, the premise of the book sees an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family in the 1920’s fall on hard times financially and struggle to keep up the façade to the outside world that everything is alright. With an overweight, socially-awkward daughter, a philandering father and a cold, unloving mother, the St Charles family are locked into destructive patterns of behaviour that they are simply unable to break out of. It is a story of fractured relationships and the utmost struggle to keep up appearances. 

Good Behaviour is also considered to be the book that ‘re-launched’ Molly Keane into critical acclaim after a twenty-year absence from writing. Most of her early work was published under a pseudonym and though highly thought of, Good Behaviour is still deemed to be her best work. It’s easy to see why this novel was lauded by the critics so much; it is a dark comedy of sorts that focuses on some very dysfunctional characters that sadly, appear too true to life. 

The book is narrated by the neglected daughter of the family, Aroon St Charles. After some initial drama at its start she commences then reflecting back on her earlier life and the ups and downs of her somewhat mixed-up family situation. Aroon was such an interesting protagonist, as well as narrator. Not always likeable by any stretch of the imagination, you cannot help but feel sorry for her, despite the fact that she is incredibly naïve and cannot sense even what is glaringly obvious about those people around her. At the end of the day, Aroon is so desperate to be loved but is rejected even by members of her own family. She is possibly closest to her brother Hubert but even he belittles her and Hubert’s friend Richard is her one chance at love, but for reasons that become glaringly evident to everyone except Aroon- it is never going to happen. Her mother is cold and dismissive of her, almost to the point of cruelness, which in some ways goes to explaining Aroon’s own behaviour. 

I was interested in reading about Aroon’s parents- their treatment of their daughter is almost painful. They don’t just reserve their mistreatment for her however, also ridiculing the one splash of warmth in Aroon’s life- her governess, Miss Brock. Aroon is completely oblivious to the fact that her father is basically a serial shagger (to put it bluntly) and remains desperate for his approval throughout the book. Anyone who has had their own similar experiences growing up will undoubtedly find Aroon’s life to be familiarly poignant and that her journey will resonate with them. 

Slightly sinister in parts yet oddly sentimental- in this vicious book, none of its characters behaved particularly well, which made for such an appealing read. Yet, despite that for its well-written prose and sharply humorous storyline, Good Behaviour is certainly a novel I would recommend. As well as being an insightful character study, it is also a great exploration of what really lies hidden beneath the outwardly perfect facades of family life. 

Oh, and that ending? Loved it.


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