Sarah Haywood’s debut novel is a breath of fresh air with a subtle yet powerful emotional punch
Memorable because of its deft characterisation and engaging plot, Sarah Haywood’s The Cactus immerses readers in the logic-driven world of forty-five-year-old Susan Green.
Through a witty and emotionally resonant first-person account that is rooted in strong feminist ideals, readers are pulled deeper into the protagonist’s utopia as an independent woman. With her comfortable London flat and civil-service job, Susan is beholden to no one. Her uncluttered life is bereft of any complex relationships that could undermine her individuality. In fact, Susan skillfully manages to assuage the few hidden emotional dependencies she does have by striking up a convenient "personal arrangement" with a businessman named Richard. Their connection is cemented through long years of an easy companionship that is anchored by a strict set of rules.
Haywood’s protagonist isn’t concerned with an aimless quest for love. Stoic, sensible and invulnerable, Susan has an unswerving belief that such messy entanglements will impact the delicate balance of her existence. However, her mother’s untimely demise compels Susan to confront realities that she has conveniently stashed away in a hidden corner of her heart and mind. Potent childhood memories of Susan’s uneasy bond with her brother Edward; their father’s raging alcoholism; and her mother’s indifference shatter the illusion of comfort that she has struggled to create in her adult life.
The doom and gloom surrounding her mother’s death, coincides with the turmoil in Susan’s personal life. She is pregnant with Richard’s baby and is reluctant to accept any form of assistance from him. What’s more, her mother’s will grants Edward a life interest in their family home and thereby deprives her of the right to immediately obtain the proceeds from the sale of the property. Driven by necessity and a twinge of dismay, Susan decides to contest the will while grappling with a lonely pregnancy. As the novel progresses, Haywood’s protagonist is plunged into a difficult journey of self-discovery that helps her restore faith in human relationships.
Eccentric, prickly and a tad callous, Susan Green stands the risk of being misunderstood by readers. For a less discerning readership, she may appear to be somewhat unlikeable. But there is much to be gained from a strong-willed, introspective protagonist who knows what she wants and is prepared to wage a battle to fulfil her needs.
The opening sentence of the novel reveals that Susan’s actions are driven by an overpowering sense of justice. Although she doesn’t bear grudges or doubt people’s intentions, Susan is willing to make exceptions when people’s behaviour unjustly impacts others. Her ongoing friction with Edward initially seems to be fuelled by sibling rivalry and raw jealousy over the preferential treatment he received from their parents as a child. As the narrative unfolds, readers realise that Susan’s hatred has a dark, mysterious core that makes her endearingly human.
Susan’s relationship with Rob, her brother’s friend and confidante, shapes the basis for considerable character development in the novel. What begins as a friendship based on suspicion gradually morphs into a connection that Susan grows accustomed to. At first, Rob appears to be a co-conspirator in her brother’s devious plan to deprive Susan of her inheritance. During the initial phases of their friendship, Susan believes that Rob is the custodian of her brother’s secrets. She painstakingly monitors his conduct in the faint hope of finding evidence that she can use against Edward in court. With time, Rob starts opening up to her about his past and offers her implicit - if not well-meaning - advice on how she can navigate her relationship with Richard.
The dizzying pace at which Rob and Susan’s easy camaraderie transforms into a romantic connection may disappoint some readers. But Haywood’s intention is not to produce a full-fledged romantic saga that pushes her protagonist towards domesticity and clichéd prospects of love. Susan’s relationship with Rob simply marks the beginning of a new phase in the character’s life that is based on emotional maturity and the ability to finally trust someone.
While the writing is crisp and concise, the narrative tends to shuffle from past to present in an unwieldy manner. This results in frequent pauses and interruptions in the linear arc of the novel. Susan’s insights are sharp, sensitive and delightfully funny. But a strong narrative voice can’t always compensate for the absence of smooth transitions. As The Cactus reaches its gripping end, readers may find themselves shortchanged by Haywood’s stylistic choices, even though the plot simmers and soars towards its logical conclusion without fail.