A mad rush for the morning mail
The Independent, 29 April 1989
By Linda Brandon
Tim Parks has a sharp eye for the mania behind the privet hedge. Casualties of suburban family life litter his three previous novels; this time they are squarely centre-stage. Set in modern Britain, Family Planning parodies Victorian values in more ways than one. The Baldwins, clever, selfish, and energetically unpleasant towards each other, are great letter writers. When Mum and Dad return from the Middle East with Raymond, their schizophrenic eldest son, there is a sudden rush of letters. what is to be done about Raymond, who joins in the correspondence with death threats and pornographic notes? Whose fault is it that the most intelligent and charm-ing of the Baldwins has turned into an obese, unwashed monster convinced that the CIA are substituting spies for the members of his family?
None of them does much to allay Raymond’s suspicions. Dad, who never wanted a family anyway, but has a “strong and sentimental sense of himself as a patriarch”, makes a quick getaway to Algeria while his wife, after years of guilty patience, finally goes for Raymond with a cake knife when he carves up the family cat. Sister Lorna, married to an American keen to pass “life’s” great milestones” on schedule, thinks she might bypass family planning altogether. Gary keeps a low, if handsome, profile, until his career hopes sink with the SDP. Then he ostentatiously martyrs himself as Raymond’s minder. And yuppie Graham keeps wondering how much, for heaven’s sake, is it all going to cost?
Letters fly like missiles through this tautly constructed novel, brilliantly revealing the characters through their own words and creating an apt metaphor for family life: no-one listens to anyone else and in the end these monologues aren’t that different from Raymond’s delusions.
There is Baldwin method in Raymond’s madness; his canny bouts of sanity are particularly galling to the others. Having driven them all to distraction, desertion or premature senility, he writes a triumphant letter to the International Court of Human Rights denouncing them as frauds: ‘the first and most devastating proof is quite simply that none of my “family” behave as if they were in any way related to me, and when they do attempt to do so their simulation is nauseatingly evident.’ Parks’s cool, racy style can seem formulaic (hmmm), but he has a gift for making the contrived ring true. Out of parody come real horrors, and his perception of insanity, on a number of levels, is disturbingly authentic.