For nearly 30 years, Deborah and Howard Morgan have lived according to their ideals. Eking out a living on their rural rental property, Stoneyridge, in England, the couple raised their son Adam, made art and welcomed guests to their bed and breakfast. But with Adam gone to pursue a high-pressure career they don’t really understand, paying guests few and far between, and their pottery and weaving all but forgotten, the two have neglected the property and the animals they were meant to care for. When Howard suffers a debilitating stroke, Deborah assumes the role of caregiver, and the Morgans become even more isolated, lonely, sad and frustrated at Stoneyridge.
Morag Joss’s latest novel, OUR PICNICS IN THE SUN, is the story of Deborah and Howard at a physical and psychological turning point in their lives, a period further complicated by the arrival of an unusual guest.
Despite her commitment to her husband, Deborah is frustrated with having to care for the helpless Howard after his stroke. The house and property are in ruins, the animals are dying, and Adam never seems to come home to visit. Deborah finds herself almost always alone and reflecting on the life she has built with Howard. She was young and impressionable when they met, and he romanced her with talk of a life well-lived. Unexpectedly pregnant, the two decided to live in the country, make art, do yoga and live off the land.
"A sad and thoughtful story of a marriage and unfulfilled emotional lives, OUR PICNICS IN THE SUN is also a chilling psychological thriller."
Those dreams never quite came to fruition, and instead Adam’s own memories are of cold and damp winters, terrible food, rants against toys and material possessions, and learning very little in his homeschool education. His anger and disappointment with his parents drive him far from home, first to attend school and later to travel the world for work. Because he rarely visits, Adam is unaware of how life is for his parents and how vulnerable they have become.
One night, two terrible guests arrive at the bed and breakfast on yet another night Adam fails to arrive, despite his mother’s longing for him. But only one guest leaves; the other stays behind. Theo, a young man about Adam’s age, comes to be Deborah’s companion. Her feelings for him and his presence at Stoneyridge threaten what little stability the Morgans have left and brings to the surface the secret they have kept for most of their marriage.
OUR PICNICS IN THE SUN is a lovely book despite the darkness and looming sense of danger with which Joss infuses it. Deborah and Howard are at once annoying and sympathetic, and readers’ feelings for Adam will change as the story unfolds and the life of the Morgan family is examined. Theo is an enigmatic figure and a symbol of what Deborah and Howard have lost individually and as a couple. The dramatic ending is crafted in a way that leaves it open for some interpretation, Joss having given her readers quite a bit of welcome intellectual and emotional credit.
A sad and thoughtful story of a marriage and unfulfilled emotional lives, OUR PICNICS IN THE SUN is also a chilling psychological thriller. This is a challenging and provocative novel, slow at times, but satisfying overall, well-written and highly charged.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on November 27, 2013