the Cactus by Sarah Haywood

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

How can siblings brought up in the same household and supposedly with the same experiences end up with such different personalities? I’m sure this is a question pondered in many families.

This is certainly the premise in Sarah Haywood’s first novel, the Cactus.

The story begins in August and continues through to March the following year. It covers the time in which siblings Susan, an independent, middle aged woman and Edward an unemployed party boy, take their animosity to new heights.

When their mother dies, Susan believes that the house will be sold and she will have access to finances which she will need now that she finds herself pregnant at 45 and not wanting to continue any relationship with ‘its’ father. After all he was supposed to make sure that this did not happen.

Here is where I need to explain a little about Susan.

She hates being called Suze especially by her brother who does it all the time to annoy her.
She lives in a flat in London and has a responsible job as a civil servant analysing reams of complex data and producing reports on performance. She had ‘ single-handedly created the ideal life for (herself)’. She had  ‘a relationship of convenience …that delivered the benefits of an intimate association with a member of the opposite sex but at no emotional cost’(p25). That is until the unexpected pregnancy.

On hearing that her mother’s will gives a life interest in the family home to Edward, Susan decides to take matters into her own hands as she believes undue influence must have been used when the will was written.  Undertaking this quest as her body adapts to the life growing within her, sees her discovering information she would rather not have.

The book written in the first person with Susan the narrator, takes the reader through the process, both legal requirements and the subtle change to Susan’s character as her pregnancy advances. It is truly like watching the prickly cactuses which Susan has on her work desk come into bloom. This is no doubt the rationale behind the cover of the book.

I did not feel any connection with the brother or sister at first and was often annoyed at Susan’s black and white approach to life and her ‘I can do it all myself’ attitude. However, as I became engrossed in the storyline it was fascinating to watch her letting her defences down. I admired her neighbour Kate who was now left with two young children to rear and was responsible for the shift in Susan’s attitude as well as Rob, a friend of her brothers and go-between for the estranged siblings. Both were determined to stick by her and help her especially as the time of birth drew near.

The blurb on the book cover describes the novel as a ‘sparkling debut’ which ‘ packs a real emotional punch, its heroine as exasperating and delightful as The Rosie Project’s Don Tillman. An uncompromising feminist and a fierce fighter, it’s a joy to watch her bloom’. I cannot comment about the Rosie Project but I agree with the description of the protagonist.

This British writer, Sarah Haywood, was born in Birmingham, studied law and worked as a solicitor, an advice worker and an investigator of complaints about lawyers. The knowledge gained from her working life is very evident in this easy to read book. It is certainly not a Mills and Boon story nor is it of the Nora Roberts ilk, but it is a book which covers many aspects of everyday life which are rarely discussed. By the end of the book I found myself admiring Susan and wishing her well as a mother. I could imagine that she still had a lot to learn about herself and relationships but also knew that she would love her offspring and do what she felt was best for her.

the Cactus

(2018)

By Sarah Haywood

Hachette

ISBN: 978-1-473-66062-5

$29.99; 384pp

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