Justin Cartwright isn’t what you might call a limited
writer stylistically, or an author with nothing to say. Two of his
books have been shortlisted (IN EVERY FACE I MEETfor the Booker
Prize, WHITE LIGHTNING for the Whitbread Novel Award), and one,
LEADING THE CHEERS, won the Whitbread in 1999. But his latest
novel, TO HEAVEN BY WATER, is a bit of a slow read --- not because
it’s poorly written or uninteresting, but because Cartwright
has taken a fairly meditative subject matter (the death of a
spouse) and has, well, meditated on it…for 300 pages.
TO HEAVEN BY WATER’s premise is a simple one. David Cross
is a retired news anchor for London’s Global
Television’s Sunrise Report. His wife, Nancy, has just
recently passed away (offstage) after a losing battle with cancer,
and his kids --- Ed, a lawyer whose marriage is crumbling because
he and his wife, Rosalie, can’t get pregnant, and Lucy, an
adrift 26-year-old cataloguer of ancient coins who’s still
flitting around with the wrong men --- think he’s not dealing
with it properly. As for David? That’s a different story:
“To his own mind he is more himself than he has been for
nearly forty years…He is not unhappy.” Thus, the
majority of the book consists of scenes where Ed and Lucy debate
whether or not their father is in denial or coping correctly, while
David merely goes on with his life as if something is a bit
different but he can’t quite summon up enough energy to
So nothing really happens, per se. There’s no
flashy writing, no dramatic moments where characters rant and rage,
no twists and turns where the reader is left deliciously mystified.
But there’s certainly a lot to think about as the characters
meander through their fairly routine routines. For one, Cartwright
allows his characters --- mostly David and his chums (although Ed
dips into the nostalgia tank as well) --- to wax on about what it
means to get older. There’s a lot of talk about “old
times” and “the way things were,” and how things
could’ve been different if only other choices were made.
Perhaps it’s a true reflection of what happens as we age, but
Cartwright’s characters seem to wallow in it.
There’s also a certain resigned fatalism to
Cartwright’s characters’ take on courtship and marriage
--- that a partnership is a worthwhile venture to enter into, but
trust, love and loyalty are suspiciously absent from the deal.
Lucy’s petering relationship with her obsessive, deadbeat
boyfriend is unmistakably toxic (“She tries to forget that he
is fantastically stupid despite his misleading good looks, and that
he is sexually disturbed, chronically promiscuous and vicious when
drunk.”), and Ed’s perception of marriage is but a poor
substitute for what it should be (“Ed thinks --- he has
intimations already --- that marriage can impose a sort of
heaviness that never lifts, a sort of muting of the
senses…”). He acts like a wounded child, temporarily
placated by his affair with Alice (a trainee at his law firm who
he’s “shagging”), but caught off guard by
Rosalie’s silence (she never admits to him that she knows
about his infidelity, but instead sleeps with his father [gasp!]).
As for David, he never got over the affair his wife had years
earlier, and instead of confronting her about it, he merely
distanced himself until there was nothing really left.
But beyond relationships, marriage, loss, freedom from
obligations, and all the rest, Cartwright paints a picture of a
fairly ordinary family --- one with its intricacies and banalities
that, in the end, are no different from any other family’s.
(What’s that you say, Tolstoy?) “That’s what
families are for, to remind you of what you really are,” Ed
says to David in one of their heart-to-hearts. Sure, that’s
one way to see it. Or, from David: “I think that the real
you, the one the family sees, is actually the you that suits them.
But there’s no point in fighting it because it’s
unavoidable.” These ideas are either side of the same coin
--- both true, depending on how you look at it.
In the end, “people’s lives, when you get to know
them well, are infinitely more complex than you could ever have
imagined.” Yes. But as illustrated in TO HEAVEN BY WATER,
they’re also incredibly simple.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on January 23, 2011
To Heaven by Water