Nature and Necessity is a quick-reading yet richly detailed account of the Montague clan. Think E.M Forster writing about a North Yorkshire socialite with diminishing soft power as neoliberalism ramps up, the old-guard of the British entertainment racket die off and Paul Oakenfold thuds dimly somewhere in the background… It is Dostoevskian in form and scope but also thematically: it is bleak. Nihilism consistently wrong foots narrative second-guessing; the culminations of various character’s moves are as gloomy and disappointing as the drizzle of the novels central North Yorkshire locale and as gloomy and crepuscular as the drug-addled or jet-lagged outlook of its participants. It is the familial elaboration of a tension across the generations of a family — patrician old money giving way to a woman’s necessary standing and, it must be said, desperate precarity. At the centre of the web is Petula Montague, the matriarch. She is orbited by her children Evita, the eldest, Regan and Jazzy. Regan is the closest, her and Petula are referred to as ‘the sisters’… Their closest neighbours were Seth and Jenny and their son Mingus Hardfield.
The principal setting is The Heights, the idyllic geographic throne of Petula that peers over Mockery Gap, not far from Shatby in North Yorkshire. She is at once domineering and enigmatic — her presence is insidious and ambiguous. She is the centre of the book in every margin. The children, Regan, Jazzy and Evita, are all defined in relation to her through woe, hate, love, anger, conflict, obligation or strife. Petula is a social Svengali and expert in game-theory-for-soirees — she is a savvy trader of ethereal soft capital — emotional, social, artistic, sexual… anything from coercion and cajoling to outright enforcement underpins her notorious parties. At which she seems to orchestrate a giddy dance of grudging or zealous obsequiousness with her flick of red hair, whiff of Chanel No. 5 and flash of a beautifully mendacious grin. Petula is an RSVP terrier, a femme Gunnery Saregant Hartman with vacant-laughs and vol-au-vents.
Men, realistically, do not fare well. There is an estranged husband, Noah Montague, whose influence is economic in terms of emotions and presence but generous in terms of wealth. Economic in man(y) ways. Then there is Jazzy, the willfully dour and calamitous illegitimate son of a generic Anycock. Jazzy devotes his time and energies to creating grotesquely indulgent art pieces, excuses for idle infantile destruction, before finding a martyr’s solace in Sisyphean farm-graft and the concomitant din of soliloquizing the injustice. Jazzy’s life is a doomed loop of burning and repairing the apron strings demarcating the family home. He is a moth to a flame — he is dull and his mother is bright, fiery and, it must be admitted, indifferent to his existence. The loopy stoned spiraling of Jazzy is accommodated more as a result of Petula’s convenience or logistical preferences than anything as twee as motherly love or, even, care. Then, there is Mingus, the liberally loquacious and pretentious offspring of the graciously accommodated working-stock help (Seth and Jenny Hardfield — geddit?) who, one assumes by the sheer indifference of the 90s Blairy credit funded YBA boom, finds himself above his station being fawned over in white cubes. Mingus is a New Labour (Thatcher 2.0) effigy. His parents ‘faithfully followed the monotony of suffering that was laid out before them’, his father, Seth, good with the land and his mother, Jenny, good for babysitting and casual conversation over tea — good because Petula enjoyed the opportunity to converse with ‘someone of no consequence’. Jazzy would spend a good deal of time with the Hardfields, Mingus in particular. Jazzy inherited two gaits from Seth Hardfield. One he knew and one he didn’t. Like Tony Blair elocutioning the toff from his voice, Jazzy adopted the accents, phrases and maxims of the local village lads. Mingus, by contrast, is less paralysingly self-aware. He is confident and extroverted but with pretenses of intellect and creative energy. Goddard stops short of framing Mingus in crude class and generational division, like a young Ken Barlow returning to the north after university, but only just. Mingus serves (in narrative but not diegesis) both Jazzy and Regan — the class issues embedded within are well observed textures to the main drive of rendering Petula’s two youngest children. It is notable that Mingus seems somehow more free and unburdened than his more privileged neighbours Jazzy and Regan. Mingus never feels as emotionally encumbered as Jazzy, trudging, aimlessly, perambulating through the heavy clay-mud of The Heights. Jazzy never escapes the gravity of his conflicted Oedipal bind.
Regan too is doomed to an orbit that will return to the mother’s web — but, unlike Jazzy, she is the favourite. She enjoys more privilege, she is aloof and seemingly independent. She has the sense of entitlement to the world that is so powerful by virtue of her sheer obliviousness to it. Quite different to the illegitimate Jazzy, she has advantages to squander — such a difference, a world of difference between kin, a smart without a name, is observed wonderfully in his observation that ‘his sister was in no condition to take advantage of her advantages’. Regan doesn’t realize how lucky she is in terms of both the family politics and social standing — but her heart is a lonely one. Her appeal to the reliably priapic jocks from Cambridge is usurped by her mother’s charm when she visits home. But the class stratification installed by her mother also denies her a love that haunts her for most of the book.
Although Regan’s hardships are less obvious than Jazzy’s she is, perhaps, more condemned. By turns both Jazzy and Regan have their capers. Goddard has a knack for narrative momentum and picquing itchy curiosity for the next page. But their escapades along the zesty ramp of hope invariably fall flat and are nihilistically smothered by fate time and time again. Their persistence would be bittersweet and endearing were one not to consistently root for them quite so earnestly. Nature and Necessity is a proper novel. It vividly details the horrors and casualties in and around a family where proper is sought over, and regardless of, love, blood, right and wrong.