Book Review: Jar Baby – Hayley Webster
(Dexter Haven Publishing) paperback £7.99
Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams
For the majority of those attending the posthumous retrospective exhibition of the work of celebrated fashion designer, Sir Rohan Rickwood, the exhortation of the last line of the museum’s press release to, “‘Drown in glamour and worship the sea'”, would sound like the most perfect mode de vie. To them, the childhood and teenage years of Diana Rickwood, through whose eyes Hayley Webster’s compelling début novel is told, would sound like a fairy tale existence. Because she spent them living with her Uncle Rohan in his beautiful beachside house and studio, to which celebrated models and famous faces would flock for fittings.
But the once-upon-a-times of Diana’s formative years were not a fast track to happily-ever-afters, for although Webster powerfully incorporates allusions to fairy tales in her narrative it is not to their post-Disneyfication versions, but to their far darker tellings from previous centuries by writers such as Charles Perrault in the 17th century and the Brothers Grimm in the 19th century in which violence, sexual threat, and abuse are common themes. There are also echoes to another 19th century writer, Heinrich Hoffmann, and his macabre and grotesque collection of cautionary tales for children, Der Struwwelpeter (Shockheaded Peter).
Far from drowning in glamour, Diana grows up drowning in a well of loneliness. Orphaned, her Uncle tells her, when her parents were drowned in a boating accident, when growing up her “entire life was made up of the interpretations of a lonely girl looking for meaning”. Exiled from the studio whenever anyone arrives for a fitting, and not allowed to meet the models, the only vestiges of a glamorous life her uncle allows her are the pins he asks her to pick up and untangle from the carpet post-fittings.
Far from basking in the reflected light of her Uncle’s glittering career, they share a bed because they are both afraid of the dark. But even in the daylight Diana’s life is permeated by darkness: from the sexual and mental abuse she suffers from the chauffeur of her uncle’s model muse, Stella Avery, to the titular half-formed human baby in a jar of formaldehyde who watches her from a shelf in Rohan’s studio, from the dog she kills on the beach, despite the fact he seems to represent “a sign of hope”, to her subsequent complete withdrawal for six weeks/mental breakdown, from her self-harming and self-abuse, to the animal’s shocking reappearance later in the novel.
At the age of 19, on the night of her uncle’s engagement to Stella Avery, having projected all the blame for her life’s troubles onto her in loco (evil) stepmother-to-be Diana leaves her uncle’s home, moving to London, to never see him again and spends the next 10 years until his death both cutting herself off from and suppressing every facet and memory of her past.
With the tide of media attention following his death, in addition to the retrospective exhibition, a biopic in development, and a biography being written, Diana is forced to rewrite the person she has spent the last 10 years becoming, for she is “no longer Dee Rickwood, food writer for Fair’s Fare supermarkets, but Diana Rickwood, niece of the glamorously dead and fêted designer Rohan Rickwood”.
Implicit in which, in her desire that the truth of both her uncle’s life and her own, as she knows it, doesn’t become submerged in a revisionist retelling, she has to re-examine her past and revisit the memories she has suppressed for so long. Which initially gives rise to ever wilder imaginings about those with whom she is reconnecting, particularly Stella Avery, but increasingly she discovers that the reality of who she is and of her past goes far beyond her wildest imaginings, is far more troubling than her darkest fears, and has been as carefully constructed by her uncle and his circle as the beautiful cape he sends her seemingly from beyond the grave.
With Jar Baby Hayley Webster makes a striking and particularly powerful début. Diana’s search for the truth, her attempts to cut through the mesh of concealments and to rethink the red herrings that she has created for herself generate the gripping excitement of a thriller, whilst the disturbing and chilling aspects of the story, both for Diana and for the reader, bring elements of Gothic fiction to the dramatic mix. Her weaving of fairy tales into the story is done so in a wonderfully evocative and playful way. I particularly liked that when Diana/Cinderella finally goes to the ball it is in a very surreal way as it is in a room in West London around which a myriad of ‘Rohans’ and ‘Stellas’ are waltzing, in rehearsal for a scene for the planned film about Rohan’s life.
Throughout the novel, Webster handles light and dark wonderfully well, in a way that heightens the power of both, for Jar Baby is both humorous and troubling, playful and deathly serious. Her exploration and depictions of the story’s unsettling and poignant themes of abuse, sexual, physical, and mental, and of interpersonal and sexual taboos, are singularly adept and insightful. Jar Baby is a book which I urge you to read.