Tender by Belinda McKeon

“She needed to concentrate on James, on his beautiful, laughing face – no, just laughing face, that was the rule, just his laughing face – as he stood up, now, to take her in his arms – no, to hug her, just to hug her; friends hug, that was what friends did – and to laugh his kisses into her ear, into her hair, and to pull away from her, shaking his head, as though thinking of the wonder of her, of the wonderful wonder.”

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Plot summary: Uni student Catherine meets aspiring artist James. They become mutually fascinated, inseparable. Catherine becomes obsessed with James, and as she becomes increasingly jealous and possessive of James, her platonic feelings develop into a romantic fixation. When James starts going out with a mutual acquaintance, she falls into a jealous despair that drives her to try to destroy James’s budding relationship. James finds out and cuts contact with her. Fast-forward to years later. Catherine is secretly still obsessed with him and fantasises about him. They meet again and reminisce about their past relationship. Life goes on.

[1] McKeon is superb at syntax. She does this thing where the sentence/paragraph is arranged in such a way that the most emotionally significant part is suspended until the very end, and the effect is absolutely biting. It’s like taking a vodka shot and not feeling it till it’s down your throat and SCALDING. For example,

  • “He shook his head, and it was not dampness she had seen in his eyes, Catherine realized; it was pain.”
  • “What was this feeling? What were these feelings, because there was more than one of them: there were several of them, and it was by them, now, that she was crowded; it was by them, now, that she was feeling cornered, feeling overwhelmed. James –” *
  • “There had been something – a carefulness – in the way he had looked at her. … And it had driven her mad.”
  • “Is it the brain or the cunt that says it to you, over and over, no matter how you try to reason with it, no matter how you try to roar at it; is it the brain or the cunt that hisses those words? / Hissing, Get him. Bring him here.”

* There is a build-up of multiple layers of suspended meaning here, each more poignant than the last: feeling – feelings – crowded – cornered – overwhelmed – James. So that the last word, “James”, seems to erupt with meaning and emotion, the singular heart of a tornado.

[2] If you love Virginia Woolf’s rhythmically prose-poetic streams of consciousness, you’ll love McKeon’s language, which is what that is. See for yourself how Woolfian these sounds, and how they set your heart racing as though they originated from there, how they set you going like a fat gold watch (sorry, McKeon likes to make Plath references and apparently so do I, now)

  • “This family. They were just so – they were amazing. They were just brilliant. And it was so strange, because in so many ways they were so much like Catherine’s own family … and yet, they were so – / Extraordinary.”
  • “… she heard, close to the patio door, and now coming across the driveway, his foot-steps, and yes, there it was, the ice, the clinking, and Catherine clenched all the muscles of her arms and her shoulders and her thighs, just for the pleasure of it, just for the loveliness of releasing them again”
  • “… the armchair they were sitting on was in a kind of alcove … as though this space, in which they were talking, was made only for them, only for their closeness, and their laughter, and the stories they had to tell each other and the things they had to discuss, and they went over everything, everything, not just the party and the stuff about Ed and Nate, but the whole evening, the opening, and how it had felt, the way they were looked at, the way they were here, the youngest, the kids, people thinking them interesting, thinking them beautiful, and wasn’t it funny, weren’t they a pair?” **

This is a book about passion, and you simply can’t out-passion this kind of language.

** This sentence is a particular favourite of mine. I felt high reading this. Notice that McKeon did the suspension thing (see [1]) again here with “weren’t they a pair”!

[3] This is a book about passion, so I really like how McKeon made breathing into a motif, giving the whole narrative a breathtaking quality.

  • “And the grim lament of ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’ plunged into this feeling so perfectly, so intimately, that she felt weird about sharing it with him, actually; … then Thom Yorke was droning, telling someone to breathe, …”
  • “… and then she found that she was holding her breath, and she realised why: so that she would not say something else, something rash or foolish, to spoil the moment, the way she usually did. This was new. This was something else he had given her: this pause.”
  • “The touch of him, the solidness of him; for a moment, Catherine could not breathe.”

Breathing is also present at the level of language, in the breaks in the sentences and paragraphs. We’ve already seen this in [2], with dashes, short clauses and commas (“and yes, there it was, the ice, the clinking”).

[4] McKeon also uses breaks as a signifier of confusion, hesitation and self-denial. There is something powerful about bringing strong emotions from the level of ideas to the level of form, giving them a solid manifestation on the page. They become immitigable. They become urgent.

“And yet they were his oldest friends. / And yet she was his closet friend; she knew that. / And yet. // And yet?”

(I’m using ‘/’ to meaning line-break btw, so ‘//’ means two line-breaks.)

[5] Catherine’s transition from platonic to romantic obsession is portrayed very smooth- and convincingly. We know from the start that Catherine doesn’t find James physically attractive, so where does this imperative to have sex with him come from? Well, McKeon has been dropping clues from the beginning of their friendship:

“… the fact was, their hands had been touching, or more like their wrists, the press of his wrist and the press of hers, skin against skin, bone against bone, and it was so strange, it had struck her, that a wrist could be such a boring part of someone and yet so massively, overwhelmingly them.”

For Catherine, possessing James physically is possessing him, because for Catherine, the physical has always signified something of the most intimate, most essential core of the person:

“… he bit his nails, she could see – the tips seemed buried in the underskin. This made her shudder, the thought of how tender it was there.”

I think the reference to the title is a sign that this detail is of particular importance – pivotal, as it turns out.

[6] There are MANY Hughes/Plath references!!! Ignore this if you aren’t part of this fandom yourself.

[7] The single-sentence chapters are pretty powerful, as are the single-sentence paragraphs that witness and mirror Catherine’s mental disintegration. See [4].

[8] The explosion part in the plot seems a bit extra to me. Catherine’s obsession is dramatic as it is, and absolutely heartbreaking. I feel like the explosion distracts us from the poignancy of Catherine’s situation AS IT ALREADY IS, leaving us mournful of things which aren’t that central to the story. I suppose it makes the storyline spicier and more contextually interesting in a commercial way, appealing to the wider audience etc..which makes it seem like a stain on a work of art. It reminded me of cheap movies where they put too much orangey blood everywhere.

[9] Everything after the explosion felt a bit unnecessary to me. I don’t feel like they added much to the story. If I was the editor I would’ve basically ended the story when James and Catherine broke up, and maybe adding a page or two on how Catherine will probably continue to obsess over him in the future.

Verdict: This book is quite flawed from the point of view of plot (vide [9], [10]), but everything else is too brilliant to miss. It’s written in such an exciting, emotive way that I had to finish it in one day. I’m not usually easily moved like this, but I was on the brink of tears a couple of times and many passages led to accelerated heart rates. A must-read.

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