Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, ‘Far from clean’, review of My Cleaner by Maggie Gee, in The Irish Times, Weekend (3 Sept. 2005)

[Maggie Gee takes a big risk in this novel. Although the book is polyphonic, the dominant voice is that of “My Cleaner” - a Ugandan woman, Mary Tendo.]

The sympathy of the author is with her rather than with the cold English character with whom she is contrasted. Unquestionably, a novelist may write from the point of view of someone whose language, culture, race, country, is radically different from her own. A novelist may do practically anything. But can it be done convincingly?

Mary Tendo is an educated and brilliant Ugandan woman who, in the past of the novel, worked as an underpaid housecleaner for Vanessa, a not-so-brilliant writer and professor of creative writing. In the novel, Mary returns to London to rescue Vanessa’s grown-up son, Justin, from depression, to work miracles all around her, and generally to turn the tables of power.

Mary Tendo is a Mary Poppins, sent from the heart of Africa to teach stressed-out, demanding Vanessa lessons about good food, relaxation, and the necessity to acknowledge the demands of the body and the physical world - of ‘nature’ - which Vanessa, who is an alienated intellectual and, in a subtle touch, a writer of books about physical fitness, denies. Unlike Mary Poppins, Mary Tendo has her own life and problems: her son, Jamil, whose father is Libyan, has disappeared, and is thought to be in Iraq fighting for the cause of Islam. The search for Jamil is one of the novel’s numerous sub-plots, navigated by mobile phones, which are used quite selectively. (This highlights a headache for today’s writer: frequently the ease of contact that contemporary people enjoy is highly inconvenient for a plot dependent on failures of communication. ‘Connect, only connect!’ said EM Forster. By text, oh dear, it is all too easy.)

At the level of realism the novel is not credible in some of its detail, its characters, its general message. Mary is too wise, too good, too feisty. Vanessa - demanding, controlling, mean, with mood swings over which she seems to have little control - is, sadly, more recognisable. (If she weren’t so thin we’d all identify with her. But she has to be thin, and pale and wan, because she’s a bluestocking representative of the barren intellectual North, not an earth mother from a hot place.)

Justin too beggars belief. So depressed he never gets out of bed, he recovers rapidly when Mary comes to nurse him. Within weeks he is off his Prozac and out painting houses with his father (a proper man and non-intellectual whose role it is to introduce Justin to old-fashioned masculinity, by way of plumbing). Within months Justin has broken the umbilical cord, reunited with his girlfriend, and become a father, in a Christmas nativity scenario.

There is more than one surprise pregnancy in the novel, which is burdened with an excess of plots and themes - the emasculation of boys in a feminised society, the exploitation of immigrant workers, the body/mind conflict, Iraq, Ugandan politics, issues of class and caste. Although there are many wise insights into all these issues, and others, revealed in the book, none of them - and none of the characters - is explored in any depth.

The book has, however, fairytale resonances: the Mary Poppins parallel, the Christmas birth and renewal and the happy ending indicate that the author consciously defers to a fantastic template.

At the two-dimensional level of fairytale or fable it could work. Mary Tendo is a paradigm for all of us - humorous, full of insight, happy in her skin. A good lover, a good cook, a good cleaner. And a good writer: she is doing a memoir in her spare time and is amply rewarded for her efforts by her own good fairy in the guise of a literary agent. Earth mother with a BA and a laptop, and a life like her admired Hemingway’s, worth writing about in short sentences.

But the novel fails, possibly because Maggie Gee does not take the fairytale template far enough and instead embraces realism with its pitfalls. She clearly loves Uganda and its people, she has made her visits and carried out her research and she sprinkles her book with sentences in Mary Tendo’s language. But instead of being admirable, this seems simply pretentious, like someone faking a posh accent. That is the risk outsiders run in writing from the point of view of the other: they risk producing something that is romanticised, patronising, superficial. False.

And, in spite of its many excellent qualities, ultimately that is what this book is.

[ My Cleaner. By Maggie Gee, Saqi, 318pp. £12.99; Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s last collection of short stories, Midwife to the Fairies, was published by Attic Press in 2003]

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