Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

In August 2021, Faber and Faber introduced a new publishing list called Faber Editions, dedicated to showcasing radical literary voices from around the world. The first book in the series is Rachel Ingalls’ beguiling 1982 novella, Mrs Caliban (my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy). It’s an utterly captivating book – a subversive feminist fable that neatly combines the everyday and the extraordinary to thrilling effect. I loved it and would thoroughly recommend it to other readers looking for something imaginative and distinctive.     

Central to the novella is Mrs Dorothy Caliban, a middle-aged woman whose marriage is stagnating. Having lost her young son, Scotty, due to complications with routine surgery, Dorothy is still grieving – trying to cope with the impact of bereavement as best she can. Moreover, she has also recently experienced a miscarriage – another painful loss for her to come to terms with, largely on her own.

Now and again, Dorothy thinks she hears voices on the radio – people talking to her directly, offering personal messages of reassurance and support. They might be a sign of trauma, but this is never made entirely clear. Sadly, Dorothy’s husband, Fred, is of little or no help in this regard, the loss of Scotty and the unborn baby having pushed the couple apart.

That was the point where things began to change with Fred. The first blow had stunned them both, but the second had turned them away from each other. Each subtly blamed the other while feeling resentment, fury and guilt at the idea that a similar unjust censure was radiating from the opposite side. (p. 7)

To make matters worse, Dorothy suspects Fred of having an affair with another woman. There have been other dalliances in the past, so this wouldn’t be his first indiscretion, and his frequent absences from the house are a clear sign of trouble.  

One day, while going about her chores at home, Dorothy hears an unusual announcement on the radio. A giant lizard-like creature, capable of living underwater and on dry land, has escaped from the nearby Institute of Oceanographic Research. Having killed two of his keepers, ‘Aquarius the Monsterman’, is considered highly dangerous, and the public are warned that he should not be approached. At first, Dorothy thinks this might be one of her strange messages from the ether, but then she quickly realises that it’s a genuine alert.

Later that night, just as Dorothy is rushing around the house, preparing dinner for Fred and one of his work colleagues, who should manoeuvre his way into her kitchen but the ‘Monsterman’ himself…

She came back into the kitchen fast, to make sure that she caught the toasting cheese in time. And she was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face. (p. 20)

After some initial nervousness, Dorothy reaches out to the creature, treating him with care and tenderness. As a consequence, ‘Larry’ – as the amphibian is generally known – is gentle and inquisitive in return, quickly establishing a bond with his new friend and protector. It soon becomes clear to Dorothy that Larry has suffered greatly while being held at the Institute. He has been tortured and sexually abused – experimented on by the scientists who were fascinated by his uniqueness. So, in truth, his attacks on the keepers were a form of self-defence.

To protect Larry from the police, Dorothy hides him in the guest room, which Fred rarely enters. Over the course of the following few weeks, a touching, affectionate relationship develops between the pair as they learn about one another’s worlds. In essence, both Dorothy and Larry are seeking an escape, a release from trauma or torture – Dorothy from the loss of Scotty and the unborn baby, and Larry from being captured and abused. Moreover, both are constrained by the limits imposed on them by society. Consequently, they find solace in one another on an emotional level, a sense of connectedness that feels meaningful and real. There is also a strong sexual dimension to their union, an aspect which offers Dorothy a sense of liberation and fulfilment, freeing her from the isolation of her lonely, loveless marriage.

By day, Larry watches TV, listens to music and helps Dorothy with the housework, an activity he clearly enjoys. I especially like how Ingalls plays with our expectations of masculinity, presenting Larry as a sensitive ‘new man’ – someone who is attentive and helps around the house, unlike most men in the early ‘80s. At night the pair venture out, driving somewhere quiet where Larry can swim or walk among the flowers, carefully hidden from strangers to maintain his cover.

They dried themselves off, drove around for a while, and walked through some of their favourite gardens in bare feet. Dorothy was less nervous than the first time they had gone out, but still felt a sense of possible danger and an edginess, which she was beginning to enjoy. She skipped and danced after Larry, as with his long legs he went loping down the length of the flowerbeds. She giggled with nerves. (p. 63)

One of many things Ingalls does so well here is to inject the narrative with a degree of ambiguity. Larry might be a figment of Dorothy’s imagination, a kind of vision or fantasy on which to project her warmth and affection – and while this is never made explicitly clear, something is said in the final two or three pages that might give the reader a jolt. As Dorothy’s friend Estelle – a divorcee with two suitors on the go – reminds her, a woman’s grief can be misunderstood and mislabelled, possibly leading to wrongful incarceration.

Remember what happened to you. They almost had you in the loony bin. Once you’re helpless, one of those bastards steps forward with a hypodermic and the curtain comes down on your life. You stay there and they give you massive doses of sedatives every day because you’re easier to take care of that way. And then your brain is pretty much slugged into submission. No more chance to find your way out of your troubles, ever. (pp. 100–101)

As this intriguing novella reaches its denouement, the threat to Larry’s safety steps up a notch, forcing the pair to take additional risks in an attempt to evade the authorities.

I loved this tender, slyly subversive story, which Ingalls underscores with a wry seam of humour. A magical, otherworldly read with a sinister, unsettling edge. Very highly recommended indeed, especially for readers who enjoy a degree of ambiguity.

40 thoughts on “Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

  1. inthemistandrain

    Thank you, that is definitely going on my list as a possible for my book club! Sounds like a good one for a lively discussion.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome! I think it would be a great one for discussion from several perspectives, especially given the degree of ambiguity in the story.

      Reply
  2. Mark Jackson-Hancock

    Thanks for unearthing this lost treasure Jacqui; I’m sure I have an unread copy somewhere. The premise brings to mind The Shape of Water though the psychological aspects make it even more intriguing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The Shape of Water is an excellent comparison, Mark! In fact, I wonder whether de Toro was inspired by Mrs Cailban when he conceived the film’s story. It has a similar magical feel, with elements of danger running through it, giving the narrative a threatening edge. I found the psychological dimension really compelling – the sort of book you want to reread immediately in the knowledge of how it ends.

      Reply
  3. A Life in Books

    Firstly, well done Faber for reissuing this one which I’ve noticed has sparked lots of interest on Twitter. It appears to address several themes still relevant today in a particularily imaginative way. Steven Sherill’s The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break popped into my head as I was reading your review. It takes a similar approach to othering.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks for that comparison, Susan. I haven’t heard of the Sherill before but will look it up, especially given your comment. It’s great to see Faber reissuing this book. As you say, it explores these themes in a distinctive, imaginative way. The sort of book that will capture a reader’s imagination, subtly planting its themes without hammering them too explicitly

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review as always, Jacqui, and this does sound like an appealing read. I like a book with ambiguity and the fact that there can be more than one interpretation of this makes me keen to read it. I wonder if there is a hint of anti-vivisectionism there, and also the analogy between the control exercised over both women and non-human creatures by men? Intriguing!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, definitely! There’s so much here to unpick, and yet it never feels dense or overloaded. You’ve clearly tuned into its wavelength, so to speak, identifying themes that resonate with you as a reader. I think you’d like this one, Karen, plus it’s short – easily a one-sitting read!

      Reply
  5. 1streading

    This sounds great, and the new imprint is very promising. The more I read the more I realise that staying print (or going out of print) is not always a judgement of quality.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I agree. It can be quite random, with no firm connection to quality or literary merit. You’d like this one, I think. In fact, it would be a great choice for your ‘short books’ reading group, if that’s still in existence?

      Reply
  6. heavenali

    A thoroughly unique little novella by the sound of it. That ambiguity you suggest about whether Larry is real or a figment of Dorothy’s imagination sounds especially intriguing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it before. The closest thing I can think of is a Lampedusa short story, The Professor and the Siren – an enigmatic fable with an element of fantasy.

      Reply
  7. gertloveday

    Just looked up Rachel Ingalls. Such an interesting writer. The ‘odd unsaleable length of her books’ was given as a reason for not being as well known as she deserved. This one definitely on my list.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’d never come across her before I spotted this in the Faber list, but she’s definitely on my radar now. It’s a shame how some of these commercially-based judgments can lead to an author’s work being forgotten or ‘discarded’ in this way, especially when they’re as thrilling as this.

      Reply
  8. Julé Cunningham

    Another interesting imprint to keep an eye on then. I’ve seen descriptions of this book and wasn’t convinced it was for me on the face of it, but your eloquent description and the ambiguity of the story may be changing my mind. I can certainly see how some very interesting ideas could be embedded in it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m not normally a big fan of the fantastic or other-worldly, but in this instance I was thoroughly captivated by it. As you’ve alluded to in your comment, the story’s themes are sufficiently interesting and grounded in reality for the story to work on more than one level. A testament to Ingalls’ skill and her lightness of touch.

      Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Same! I’m not normally keen on books containing elements of fantasy or magic realism, so this one took me by surprise. Somehow it works, possibly because the inherent themes Ingalls is exploring (e.g. grief, isolation, sexual awakening, feminism) are so clearly rooted in reality.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Many thanks for this – it’s a fascinating article! Like you, I’ve skipped the sections on ‘They’, but the opening about Dick’s friendship with other literary luminaries (including Spark, Manning and Brophy) is very interesting indeed. Lucy Scholes has been championing ‘They’ on social media for several months, so I’m not surprised to see that she’s the writer of this piece. In fact, it’s one of the forthcoming titles from McNally Editions US, with the involvement of Scholes, I believe? https://www.mcnallyeditions.com/

          Reply
          1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

            Au contraire — thank you! I just checked out McNally Editions, of which I was unaware and it’s wonderful! Right up my alley, so to speak. Lucy Scholes (I really must get on twitter) is indeed involved; They will be published in Feb. It will no doubt be much easier for me to get a copy from McNally than from Faber, or Blackwells (international mail delivery seems very spotty these days).
            I, too, thought the PR piece on Dick was fascinating; she seems to be the most famous writer no one has heard of (that nasty Guardian obituary really aroused my interest). I only recently discovered the PR’s Forgotten Books column (I think Scholes may routinely do this feature) which is a great deal of fun to read.

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              My pleasure! I’m glad to have introduced you to McNally Editions. Their list looks excellent, doesn’t it, and far easier to source in the US than the equivalent UK editions.

              And yes, Lucy Scholes writes the Rediscovered column on a monthly basis for the Paris Review. A very interesting feature, I think!

              Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s an interesting thought! Possibly in terms of the imaginative / fantastic elements of the story (it’s somewhat similar to Angela Carter’s fiction in that respect), although less so in style. Either way, it’s a captivating book. Well worth a couple of hours of the reader’s time.

      Reply
  10. madamebibilophile

    This sounds intriguing – it’s great to hear that such a different book is being republished. It made me think of The Shape of Water too. For a 40 year old novella it sounds so contemporary.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Doesn’t it just? It bodes well for this Faber series, particularly if the other books in the collection are of a similar standard. Kay Dick’s novella They (out this week I think) sounds very interesting indeed!

      Reply

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