In The Sweep Of The Bay is a compassionate exploration of a marriage that begins in joyfulness but slowly dissolves amid silences and misunderstandings.
Ted and Rene marry as the harsh years of post-war Britain come to an end. Their wedding, just like their courtship, is a quiet affair. They settle, as many couples did in the 1950s, into a routine where he’s the breadwinner, she’s the homemaker. As the years roll on, and the children are born, their separate worlds move further and further apart.
Ted loves his work at the family’s ceramics factory where he’d started the hard way, as a young apprentice. Then he became the boss and their star designer, creating vases stocked in all the big London stores. But Rene resents the time he spends at the factory, rebuffing all his attempts to engage her interest in his designs or to rekindle the kissing and cuddling of their courtship. She meets every overture with the same refrain: “I’ve so much to do” , she’d say. Each rebuff widens the space between them.
When Ted suffers a heart attack, the Marshalls have an opportunity to start again, to discover if their love can be rekindled or if their marriage has reached the point of no return.
Cath Barton’s dissection of this relationship is tender and affecting. It’s painful to see the gulf between two people who, deep down still love each other, but can’t find the words to talk about their feelings and their frustrations.
There were many points at which my heart went out to this couple. Rene’s attitude was achingly sad because this is a woman whose unhappiness has deepened so much over the years that it envelops everything she does. Even simple acts of kindness are met with the pursed lips of resentment.
And then there’s Ted, a genuinely kind and loving man who is unhappy because the lively, fun girl he married has gone. In her place is a woman who makes him cry when she says she could easily have married someone else. Lacking companionship and appreciation at home, he finds it through his young assistant at the office.
What I think Cath Barton has nailed is the depiction of relationships between “working-class” men and women in the 1950s and 60s.
Few women had the opportunity to find an outlet for their energy and intellect outside of the home. They see it as their duty to “keep a good house”, ensuring their homes are spick and span, children always have clean clothes and there’s a hot meal on the table when their husbands get home. But the demands of house and home leave them perpetually exhausted.
A well-intentioned vicar tells Rene “you must find something that is for you … Something beyond the house.” but he knows it’s a futile piece of advice. He sees so many women like her in his parish; thin, pale and worn out by domestic duties.
He couldn’t do anything to change matters; the mores of the time were bigger than him. But he did his bit.
Rene sees her daughter Dot make a similar sacrifice, settling for marriage instead of a career but is left to bring up a child alone when her husband decides he can’t cope with being a dad. It’s left to the next generation of women, in particular the feminist grand-daughter Cecily, to achieve the independence Rene could only dream about.
Though a short work of just over a 100 pages, In The Sweep Of The Bay is a thematically rich narrative woven together from Ted and Rene’s perspectives plus those of family members. The setting of the vast estuary of Morecombe Bay in the north of England, is a perfect mirror for the ebbs and flows of this couple’s relationship; its fortunes as a seaside resort fading just as their love fades.
This is not a dramatic tale since Ted and Rene are not the kind of people who go in for raised voices or smashed plates. To the outside world they are a happy couple, devoted to one another. But in quietly and systematically revealing their inner lives, Cath Barton shows that such appearances can be deceptive. As one of the daughters reflects after Ted and Rene’s deaths “how little we know of other people’s lives, even our own parents. Perhaps especially our own parents.”
In The Sweep Of The Bay by Cath Barton: Endnotes
Cath Barton hails from the East Midlands but now lives in in Abergavenny., Wales where she loves to walk and take photographs. She won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella in 2017 for her first novel – The Plankton Collector. She also writes short stories and flash fiction and, with her critical writing, is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.
You can see Cath reading from her book via this YouTube channel recording of the launch – the reading starts approximately 14 minutes in. There is also an insightful author interview over at the NutPress blog
In the Sweep of the Bay is her second novella. It’s published by Louise Walters Books, a small independent press that specialises in literary fiction.