Midalia, Susan. Everyday Madness. Fremantle Press, 2021. RRP: $29.99, 280pp, ISBN: 9781760990091.
Susan Midalia’s second novel, Everyday Madness, is a delight; it is gently informative, full of vibrant characters and engaging in a way that only a story of what it means to be human can be.
At the centre of it all are Bernard and Gloria, both in their late fifties/early sixties and married for nearly forty years. But Gloria, prone to being a relentless chatterbox, suddenly stops speaking, throwing the entire family dynamic into disarray.
Midalia could have taken the generic route here and explored an ageing couple with a struggling marriage using all the tropes and stereotypes available to her. But instead of shoving plot twists and cheating spouses into the face of the reader, she unfurls and reveals, bit-by-bit, the characters and their flaws by drawing out all the emotional nuances and behaviours that have caused this ordinary marriage to flounder. Everyday Madness is a study of how losing sight of ourselves can have disastrous consequences on our relationships and how easy it is for meanness and poor communication to become something darker and more dangerous.
Though mental health issues are explored in depth in this novel, the persistent use of the word ‘madness’ is not used to refer to these issues or be derogatory in any way. As Midalia explains;
My use in the novel of the word ‘madness’ does not refer to the severe mental illnesses from which people suffer. Rather, I use the concept to refer to a range of not uncommon psychological phenomena: anxiety, depression, self-aggrandisement, and the harbouring of unfounded suspicions by more-or-less rational people. (279)
This point is made in the narrative long before we reach Midalia’s explanation in the acknowledgements. Throughout Everyday Madness the characters find themselves in situations that, to them, seem a little bit unbelievable or ‘mad’: everything from a friend’s wife deciding to take a lover because her husband has a string of affairs, to their neighbour placing flamingo statues across his lawn as a present to his bird-loving wife.
Midalia notes that this novel started as a short story written from Bernard’s perspective (the first chapter here), but it is fitting and revealing that the majority of the narrative is told from the perspective of three women representing different generations. We have Gloria, the grandmother, Meg, the ex-daughter-in-law and Ella, the granddaughter. By encompassing all viewpoints of the female experience, Midalia investigates what it is to be a woman in contemporary society, and how gender expectations and norms placed on these women can add to an incremental feeling of madness over time.
‘I’ve worked all my married life,’ she said. ‘But no one pays me a thing for all the work I do, the cooking and cleaning and—’ (119)
Gloria, here emerging from her bout of depression and recovering in the hospital, begins to question the madness of the societal expectation that has her working without pay for her married life. As the grandmother figure, she represents an era where a couple had to be married before they had a child, the traditional values of a husband providing for his wife, and the idea that a woman should keep herself slim and attractive for her husband. Gloria’s relationship with husband Bernard explores emotional abuse in a marriage; though Bernard’s comments and actions may not seem too bad, it is this element that ultimately wears Gloria down and contributes to her loss of identity and low self-esteem.
One generation down is Meg, a divorcee who was married to Karl, Gloria and Bernard’s self-obsessed son. Karl barely calls his mother or father, hasn’t introduced them to his new wife-to-be, and doesn’t show any interest in his daughter. He’s the epitome of toxic masculinity and doesn’t even get a look in when it comes to the book’s narrative perspectives. In this way, Midalia makes sure she gives voice to those who may have been silenced in other areas, while quietening the loud male voices that have nothing useful to contribute.
Meg takes on the role of daughter and caregiver, leaping into action when Gloria is admitted to hospital: she looks after Bernard while caring for her own child. Though she is studying to be a speech pathologist, Meg spends most of her time worrying and focusing on others, so much so that she neglects her own life.
‘Well, I’m out of practice, too,’ she said. ‘If that’s any consolation.’
He looked down at the table, then up into her eyes. ‘It’s difficult, isn’t it?’ he said
‘The first date?’
‘I guess so,’ he said, awkward again. (144)
Meg’s constant sense of anxiety over her daughter, herself, her life and her relationships hinders her chance of connection with other people. Like Gloria, once she begins to focus on herself, that’s when she can truly find her place in her family and open herself up to the possibility of a relationship. To do that she has to be removed from Karl—an opportunity Midalia gives her by letting her voice dominate in the narrative—and show her own character outside the confines of her definition as ‘ex-wife’.
Ella represents the younger generation of women; she’s vibrant, intelligent, quirky and full of personality. But as she interacts more with her friends, she begins to question not only how she looks, but who she is.
‘So, am I vain if I want my nose changed?’
Her mum cleared her throat. ‘There’s nothing wrong with your nose, Ella.’
‘There’s something wrong with your eyes, Mum.’ (188)
Meg proceeds to tell her daughter of the perils of buying into the ideals of ‘celebrity magazines and movies, with their images of impossibly beautiful women’ (188) and it is at that point that the realisation dawns that she’s not only speaking about Ella’s experience with her self-image. Midalia has quite craftily uncovered one of the everyday madnesses that impact women to such an extent that they change their lives to fit this mould. Gloria’s journey to self-empowerment, Meg relenting and giving a relationship a chance, Ella’s emergence into independence, all serve to emphasise the message that women, and men, do not need to give in to this madness of the ideal in order to be who they are. In fact, they are much better off when they ignore it completely.
Everyday Madness is a beautiful book, full of love, joy and emotion. It is also thought-provoking and intelligent, the narrative entwined with an important message that our lives do not have to submit to madness. That we are free to just be who we are as long as we are kind to ourselves and to each other.
Jen is a writer and journalist based in Perth. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for ten years and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. She previously worked for Scoop Events and in the marketing team at Fremantle Press, and is now a freelance writer and editor.