Review – The Cactus by Sarah Haywood

Everyone raves about the cover of this book; it is indeed eye catching. However, judging a book by its cover we know to be dangerous; it’s what’s inside the gift wrapping that matters. Fortunately, what’s inside this wrapper is pretty decent, so this isn’t like settling for the tough, flat Quality Street toffee which grated on your teeth, when you really want the delicious praline green triangle. That said, The Cactus is more like the sticky caramel with the hazelnut inside, the one in the purple wrapper. Soft, sticky, but with a hard nut at its core, except Susan, the focus of the book turns the sweet inside out, her rational outer shell belying her soft centre. In my mind the Quality Street image persists throughout the book. It is comforting, homely stuff, even containing a Christmas scene, woven with family conflict, which may not be good for you but is more realistic than the perfect Waitrose family Christmas we are unashamedly sold.

At forty five, protagonist, Susan, thinks her life is perfect. It suits her very well. She has escaped Birmingham for London, has a logical job, and a functional sexual relationship. She has left behind her antagonistic brother, who takes on most of the care of their aged mother. There is no scope for spontaneous mess in Susan’s life, which if it occurs at all, is dealt with clinically. As others have said before me she is something of an Eleanor Oliphant, almost certainly on the autistic spectrum, likeable, well-mannered, but as one reviewer on Good Reads said, hard to identify with. This is because most of us don’t behave with such precision, nor do we enjoy Susan’s levels of logic, or her honest (direct, blunt, call it what you will) social awkwardness. Yet she is very much her self-sufficient own person, and we can empathise when she meets the awfully loud, vacuous, image-conscious members of her family. Susan is a woman who likes to be in control, yet these levels of control are foiled by somewhat more chaotic people who like her. Despite all this, somehow she finds she is about to become a mother at a time when she has just lost her own, her child fathered by a man who is really not that special to her.

The book blurb likens her to Don Tillman in The Rosie Project. It is easy to see the likeness, and while I couldn’t identify with Don either (Rosie was much easier) I liked both characters, or more importantly, I was invested in them, interested in their outcomes. Both Susan and Don are lucky in that they have caring individuals around who fall for their special quirkiness, seeing past the tactless candidness, the prickliness and initial social awkwardness; if it was real life, neither may be so lucky, where Susan would probably remain an isolated outsider and struggle with single parenthood which social realism would squeeze through the wringer. But this is Up Lit fiction, where difference is rightly celebrated. Up Lit is the tagline now used for fiction which is uplifting, a perspective on social reality that is based in kindness. Said to be the cheery antidote to Trump, Brexit and other dark news, Up Lit is not sickly saccharine but still tends to have a happy ending, arrived at in a convoluted way, because most people we meet in life are actually kind and helpful.

A novel brimful with humour, there are some wonderful opening descriptions of the never-ending charity collections in the office, the irritating work colleagues wittering away while Susan is trying to tackle a the spoils of a spreadsheet. Extracting data versus inane chatter, her life in the midst of life in general. Her days, however, becomes much messier than any desk, as we follow Susan through the months of her pregnancy, but let’s not spoil it for you.

I kept wanting to return to this book, so I was disappointed when it finished because it was a fun, well written, easy read, giving out a warm glow. The cactus is a challenging plant. All cacti can bloom but they need exactly the right care and conditions, so it is such an apt name for the book.

Maybe as the cactus blooms we will see Susan, the sequel.

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