5 minute read

Carolyn Slaughter Biography

Nationality: British. Born: New Delhi, India, 1946. Educated in Botswana and England. Career: Advertising copywriter, Garland Compton Ltd., 1966-68, Norman Craig and Kummel, 1969-71, Collett Dickenson and Pearce, 1971-72, Nadler Larimer and Cromer, 1972-74, all London. Freelance writer, 1974-85. Awards: Geoffrey Faber Memorial prize, 1977.



The Story of the Weasel. London, Hart Davis, 1976; as Relations, New York, Mason Charter, 1977.

Columba. London, Hart Davis, 1977; New York, Panther House, 1979.

Magdalene. London, Hart Davis, 1978; New York, Evans, 1979.

Dreams of the Kalahari. London, Granada, 1981; New York, Scribner, 1987.

Heart of the River. London, Granada, 1982; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1983.

The Banquet. London, Allen Lane, 1983; New Haven, Connecticut, Ticknor and Fields, 1984.

A Perfect Woman. London, Allen Lane, 1984; New York, Ticknor and Fields, 1985.

The Innocents. London, Viking, and New York, Scribner, 1986.

The Widow. London, Heinemann, 1989.

* * *

She decided she'd read more than enough of those well-balanced, neatly clipped English parochial novels where the greatest excitement was reading the last page and being done with the damn thing.

(Heart of the River)

With this resolution, Constance, Caroline Slaughter's heroine, throws her paperback "with a flabby flop" into the swimming pool. It is not hard to see the author behind the character. Slaughter herself first grasps and then rejects the English paperback, casting off the norms of the genre, transmuting it with her own fierce emotional vitality. Her art sheds, easily but with far reaching consequences, the conventions of romantic fiction, creating novels which are characterized by a naked honesty which is at times almost confessional in its intimacy. While her themes are those of paperback romances—love, relationships, and the family—her quest for psychological reality leaves the art of idealization and euphemism far behind. Her art shatters the convenient collusion between romance writer and reader as to what human beings feel.

Slaughter portrays the dark knots of bitterness and vulnerability, pain and need, which lie within the individual psyche. Her vision strikes dramatic contrasts to fictional norms. One example of this is an unusual frankness in her treatment of sex. Another fictional taboo to be broken is that of monogamous love. Constance in Heart of the River (as Humphrey in A Perfect Woman) is torn by love for more than one person. The violence of our needs and our own inner contradictions destroy the easy assumptions about the consequences of falling in love.

The thirst for psychological honesty—and Slaughter is acutely psychologically aware—draws her work deeper and deeper into the inner wounds from which our compulsive emotions spring: the traumas of childhood and early sexual experience, the relationship with the mother, the secrets passed from one generation to another within the family. The epigraph to Heart of the River, from Eliot, is appropriate to all her work:

We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.

While not making explicit use of psychoanalysis, there is an impulse within Slaughter's work which parallels that of the analyst: the search for inner knowledge, for discovery of, and confrontation with, the secrets hidden within the self. Her plots are driven not only by the momentum of unfolding action, but by that of unfolding knowledge. As in classical tragedy, there is a pattern of concealment and revelation leading to eventual denouement and catharsis. At the climax of her novels are realizations: both in the sense of comprehension, and in the sense of fulfillment of what has long lain hidden. At the same time as characters approach the crisis of their lives they (and the reader) approach understanding of the seeds of that crisis, often sown far in the past. In Heart of the River Slaughter quotes Shiva Naipaul, "To rediscover a lost past is to rediscover an essential part of the self." Such rediscovery however, as in The Innocents and The Banquet, can be destructive as well as enlightening.

As the analyst's sensitivity and acuteness are brought to bear on individuals, so Slaughter also scrutinizes tensions between people, particularly between lovers. The Banquet and A Perfect Woman show how our deepest needs become focused on the objects of erotic attraction; The Widow and Heart of the River demonstrate the violent battles which take place within relationships. We feel, too, the rage of the lover against those parts of the beloved which cannot be contained by a relationship. Such tension and mutual incomprehension are cleverly illustrated by Slaughter's technique of split narratives, where each of the protagonists tells a segment of story in turn.

The psychological conflicts which fascinate Slaughter find logical extension in the split personality of Bella in The Widow. Similarly, the psychological violence Slaughter records is writ large in the act of homicide; in men who kill women (Harold in The Banquet) and in women who kill men (Rebecca in The Widow, Zelda in The Innocents). The characters who commit these acts are not incomprehensible monsters: they are themselves the heroes and heroines, and their stories are recounted from within, and in their own words. They are acted upon by the same compulsions and passions which drive us all.

Slaughter's novels are at the same time love stories and dispatches from a war between women and men, a war for the goals of fulfillment and the satisfaction of emotional need. This war spills over into sexual politics. The Widow shows the dissociation between two personalities: Rebecca, an earthy, home-loving woman in floral dresses, and Bella, a severe, cerebral career-minded surgeon. The war is however primarily fought out between lovers. Constance's weary acknowledgment of "the sadomasochistic cycle" of her relationship highlights an underlying connection between love and pain. We, the readers, are implicated in this war, and are brought to identify with the characters who take it to its most violent extreme. In The Banquet Slaughter teases the reader with sensuous prose which anticipates the fulfillment of exquisite fantasies:

Then she opened her lips and the red fruit disappeared into the wet dome of her mouth; he watched with intensity, as though at any moment he expected the pink flesh to cry out … the seductive breath of the warm strawberries pierced him with longing; the juices ran into the corners of her lips and it was agonizing not to kiss her.

The sheer eroticism of Harold's descriptions, and his sensitivity, draw us into his disturbed mind. Similarly in The Widow, Bella succeeds in showing that Joseph, the psychiatrist, is as incomplete and as broken as she is: that all face the same inner search and struggle for wholeness.

Slaughter's power to portray a particular place and culture is considerable, whether it be rich suburban life in Britain of the 1980s, or the heat and brutality of Africa in revolution. It is however in setting new standards of emotional veracity that her greatest achievement lies.

—Edmund Cusick

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Paul Anthony Samuelson (1915– ) Biography to Bessie Smith (1895–1937) Biography