I can’t tell you how delighted I was when someone got in touch out of the blue and asked me if I might do a walking book club for her friend’s hen party. Yes, that’s right, a HEN PARTY. An occasion which usually calls for things like shots, novelty straws, strippers, embarrassing games usually to do with sex, and pink garters… yet here was a lady wanting to organise a hen party where everyone would go for a walk and talk about a book. This was evidently my kind of girl. (You can read about my own very literary hen party here.)
Of course I said yes please, and put my mind to choosing a good book. I settled upon The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers – short, wedding-ish, unusual, and absolutely bloody brilliant.
As the day drew near, I began to feel a little apprehensive. What if everyone turned up smashed? What if nobody liked books, or walks, and were all very cross at discovering this wasn’t actually a hilarious cover for a pole-dancing lesson? It was certainly pretty likely that nobody would have read the book. I scribbled down more notes than usual, prepared to summarise some bits, read other bits aloud, and thought of some suitably vague questions in an attempt not to exclude people who hadn’t read it. When I told friends about what the weekend held in store, they merely laughed and advised me to fill my handbag with rudely-shaped sweets, and booze, ‘just in case’.
You can imagine my relief, then, when the gaggle of girls (plus a couple of boys) turned up looking fresh-faced, full of beans, suitably studious, and with some very fetching dog balloons in tow. The bride looked perplexed. Nobody looked drunk. And to my astonishment EVERYBODY had read the book, even the bride – who had somehow been coerced into it without realising why.
So off we set across Hampstead Heath, the rudely-shaped sweets burning a hole in my pocket and now seeming wildly inappropriate. I was relieved that I’d also thought to bring along some less offensively shaped almond biscuits baked by the husband.
The Member of the Wedding took Carson McCullers (a woman – she dropped her first name ‘Lula’ when she was 13) five years to write and was first published in 1946.
Frankie wants to be a ‘member of the wedding’. She sees her brother, who’s just come back from Alaska, with his fiancé and realises:
They are the we of me. Yesterday, and all the twelve years of her life, she had only been Frankie. She was an I person who had to walk around and do things by herself. All other people had a we to claim, all other except her.
Frankie wants to be part of something which, of course, she can’t be. It’s a desire that ripples through the novel. Frankie is left out by the older girls, who ‘said she was too young and mean’ to join the clubhouse where they have parties with boys on Saturday nights, but is also ‘too tall this summer to walk beneath the arbour as she had always done before’ with the other younger children. She is caught between youth and adulthood, not allowed to be a member of either. So McCullers lets her novel take the appealing form of a coming-of-age story.
‘They are the we of me’ is such a haunting phrase. Made up of single syllables, with a simple rhyme, it harnesses both the shining naivete and the fervent belief of childhood. It is painful in its purity. Here McCullers has put simply a feeling from which we all suffer – an acute desire to belong to something to which we feel a kinship. And, of course, the phrase conjures its shadow of impending exclusion.
These twin forces of connexion (McCullers spells it with an x) and exclusion are at play throughout the novel. They are there with Frankie and her brother’s wedding and there in Frankie’s in-between state of not-quite-child-not-quite adulthood.
They are also there when it comes to race. In Ali Smith’s superb introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, she points out that Carson McCullers railed against the racism of the American South even as a child, ‘yelling with rage at the taxi driver who had refused to take her parents’ black cook in his cab.’ Frankie is refreshingly colour-blind, having a close bond with her family’s black cook Berenice, and, when she walks through the town, McCullers writes that ‘she crossed the unseen line’ which divides it into its black and white areas.
Towards the end of the book, there’s a powerful scene when Frankie is sitting around the kitchen table with Berenice and John Henry, her much younger cousin. Frankie has determined to leave home and so:
On this last evening, the last time with the three of them together in the kitchen, she felt there was some final thing she ought to say or do before she went away.
The atmosphere is portentous, as though Frankie is just on the verge of a discovery, is about to say something of weight:
Strange words were flowering in her throat and now was the time for her to name them.
‘This,’ she said. ‘I see a green tree. And to me it is green. And you would call the tree green also. And we would agree on this. But is this colour you see as green the same colour I see as green? Or say we both call a colour black. But how do we know that what you see as black is the same colour I see as black?’
McCullers is canny in her choice of colours: green points to Frankie’s own greenness, her youth and naivete, and black could not be more loaded, especially as this is said to Berenice, the black cook. A little later in their conversation, Berenice says that she is ‘caught worse than you is’:
Because I am black … Because I am coloured. Everybody is caught one way or another. But they done drawn completely extra bounds around all coloured people. They done squeezed us off in one corner by ourself … Sometimes it just about more than we can stand.
So McCullers uses Frankie’s ‘flowering’ of new words and feelings and womanhood as a means of discussing racism. She shows that colour is a deceptive means of bringing people together: ‘we would agree’ on a tree being green, but ‘how do we know that what you see as black is the same colour I see as black?’
This idea of miscommunication and understanding different meanings from the same word appears again when Frankie meets a soldier. He asks her:
‘Who is a cute dish?’
We get the flirtation, but Frankie is puzzled:
There were no dishes on the table and she had the uneasy feeling that he had begun to talk a kind of double-talk.
This ‘double-talk’ gets a whole lot worse later, but I must avoid spoilers.
Really The Member of the Wedding is ‘double-talk’ writ large. It purports to be a simple coming-of-age story about twelve-year-old Frankie, but in fact Carson McCullers addresses racism, death, The Second World War, and, perhaps more profoundly, these universal ideas which are so painful to read about because they are so acutely observed: the fact that we all misunderstand each other, the fact that we all want to belong to things from which we are excluded.
We all had a great deal to say as we strode across the Heath on this literary hen party. The discussion grew especially impassioned as we talked about the violence that punctuates the book … but then, quite suddenly, everyone was laughing. I turned round to see what had happened, surely not everyone found the ‘cute dish’ pun as funny as all that?
A naïve dog had been charmed by a particularly attractive canine balloon. The dog was now sniffing the balloon’s bottom, looking disappointed and more than a little confused. Poor dog, I thought. No doubt, he had seen the doggy balloons and thought, They are the we of me.