Quicksand Tales by Keggie Carew review – a connoisseur of catastrophe

From inept waitressing to carnage in the countryside … personal anecdotes from a natural storyteller, which leave the reader squirming

If some people seem to get all the luck, others get exactly the opposite. They are disaster magnets. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why clowns are popular: they are suckers who are never given an even break. What’s more, they never learn from their mistakes. Every time they spot a custard pie it is practically guaranteed to splatter them in the face, while if one clown has the bright idea of walking around with a ladder it isn’t long before it bashes another clown on the head. The world of slapstick is one in which pratfalls are as unavoidable as gravity.

Reading Keggie Carew’s collection of misadventures, it’s tempting to conclude that she should probably go around wearing a red nose and a pair of comically outsized shoes, because she too never seems to learn from experience. Repeatedly she finds herself in situations where she confidently anticipates one thing and ends up with something much worse.

In 1990 she moves to Auckland with her husband, excited by “the possibilities for reinvention”, and then spends an entire dinner talking to “a hairy-faced bloke called Nigel”, blithely unaware that he is actually the film star Sam Neill. Later she finds herself living in the English countryside and is convinced that she will spend hours happily staring up at the spangled night sky and counting the “copper freckles in a foxglove’s throat”. But soon she discovers that it is impossible to create a country garden without committing murder on an industrial scale: squishing plump aphids until green juice runs down her hands (“Now I knew what was really meant by green fingers”), and stamping on slugs or watching them drown “in a floating ballet limbo”. Et in arcadia ego.

None of this is likely to surprise readers of her previous book, the Costa award-winning Dadland, a memoir in which she set out to reconstruct the life of her father. A maverick former soldier whose life was slowly disintegrating through dementia, in his 80s he could still execute a perfect parachute roll after falling down a flight of stairs, turning potential disaster into a kind of performance art. Quicksand Tales is something of a sequel: a set of cheerfully haphazard personal anecdotes in which Carew takes Beckett’s line “Fail again. Fail better” and gives it a twist of her own. For if she is to be believed, she is not merely accident-prone; she is a connoisseur of catastrophe. Around every corner awaits a new banana skin; under every seat lurks another whoopee cushion. Almost every day, it seems, provides more evidence that for people like her a better motto would be “Fail again. Fail worse.”

Starting out as a writer, she enters one of her poems in a competition that promises expert feedback. When it arrives, she opens the envelope and notices that at the bottom of a largely blank form her reader has scrawled: “To be honest Plath on a bad day is better written than this.” In Ireland, she storms round to the home of someone she suspects has been stealing from her, quietly lets herself in so that she can retrieve her possessions, and only realises when she looks at the photographs on the mantelpiece that she is burgling the wrong house.

If there’s a moral here, it’s that life rarely works in neat lines, even if that is precisely what a writer might want from it. Carew’s preface tells the story of Picasso preferring pictures that were hung crookedly, as they told you much more about the owner than a neatly hung picture ever could, and Carew’s own stories of “incompetence, paranoia, insecurity, clumsiness … or pure bad luck at being in the wrong place at the wrong time” are offered on a similar principle. As she points out, “we are all crooked pictures, busy in the lifelong pursuit of straightening ourselves”, so if we shudder when reading about her experiences it is because we recognise that we have all done similarly daft things. The difference is that we tend to avert our eyes from them, whereas she is apparently willing to share every painful detail with us, a personal bloopers reel that stretches from her incompetence as a waitress (“Sorry, sorry”) to her spine-jarring attempts at riding a camel in the Sahara.

Carew is a natural storyteller, and each of these tales works like a perfectly paced standup routine, punctuated by some gorgeous phrase-making: the “eerie shuddery whiteness” of mating moths that “look like Rorschach blots”, or the strange sensation of intimacy we experience when reading a good book, “a kind of one-to-one whispering”. It’s hard to make writing look this easy, but Carew’s stories have the knack of easing the reader happily from page to page, leaving us squirming at the situations she finds herself in while secretly hoping that she won’t escape them just yet.

The only exception is a story that relates how she and her husband decided to celebrate her birthday by booking a weekend break in a £300-a-night Scottish hotel. Inevitably everything goes wrong. The bedroom is spartan rather than tartan, and the only view of a nearby loch is from the bath. Then they wander along to the hotel restaurant for dinner, and discover the owner barring their way. They are eight minutes late. It is like a scene from Fawlty Towers with the volume turned up, and they soon leave the hotel to stay in a more relaxed B&B down the road. But that isn’t enough for Carew. Long after she has decided that the first hotel is absurd, she continues to complain about it to everyone she meets. She frets about the pyjamas she left behind. In fact she is still annoyed four years later, when she hears that the hotel has gone bust. None of this is very funny, and it also underlines one of the dangers with Carew’s kind of confessional writing: sometimes it reveals rather more than the author intended it to.

• Quicksand Tales is published by Canongate (RRP £16.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.


Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

The GuardianTramp

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