The Perils of Minn

The opening chapter of The Honeyman Festival by Marian Engel is a tour de force: not many years intervened between the birth of Minn’s fourth child and my own first, so I found it easy to identify with our leading lady. From her first appearance, ex-starlet Minn is vulnerable: “Minn was in the bath, and filled the bath.” Heavily pregnant, she is alone in her decrepit rented house (despite the presence of her other three children and various hippy lodgers in the attic), preparing for a festival to celebrate the life of her now-dead lover (and minor Svengali-figure), the film director Honeyman. Her vulnerability is what first grabs the reader; her deliberations on the perils of pregnancy (of positively Penelope Pitstop proportions) made me laugh out loud.

Overall, however, this is not an entirely comfortable read. The setting is the end of the 1960s, when women were only just beginning to battle their way out of what seemed a predestined role: education was to get you a good but suitable job such as teaching or clerical work – “helpmeet” roles – until you met a man and settled down to have a family. Intelligent women were starting to rebel, but they were frequently unhappy and occasionally vilified. Minn is just put-upon. Her husband Norman is in Katmandu because it pays the rent. When he does come home to the kind of mess that three very small children can create, he regards it as reasonable to go out to the pictures. The rent is exorbitant because he likes the huge, crumbling house with fourteen-foot ceilings, but he doesn’t have to deal with the bugs or the mould under the lino. The hippies can’t always pay their rent, and Minn would welcome help with the children and around the house instead, but it is not forthcoming, and she doesn’t seem able to insist. Her children are food-throwing monsters, as small children tend to be.

Brooding on the risks to these infants brought about by her hugely-pregnant and exhausted state, Minn takes her only positive action to improve her situation: she demands the services of a social worker. Unfortunately Jane-Regina turns out to be an old enemy from school, who can offer no more constructive assistance than to come and talk about herself. Yet while the reader cannot help but sympathise with Minn in the face of the “mincing” and ghastly Jane-Regina, one is at the same time conscious of frustration at Minn’s inertia. She doesn’t want this baby; she is 37, she conceived while wearing a contraceptive loop, and she has grown up with a (much-loved) Downs syndrome sibling. She wanted an abortion, but her family doctor is condescending and unhelpful, and she has made no move to insist.

We follow Minn through the course of the day of the festival, struggling with preparations, fighting exhaustion to fulfil her role as hostess. By the end of the day (and the book) Minn has scored a minor victory, and has heard from her husband to say he is on his way home, but nothing has really changed. You suspect that her internal monologue will go on around the next baby (and you hope that, unlike the protagonist of The Glassy Sea, she will have a normal child). You feel it would take an upheaval like desertion by her husband to kick Minn into real action, and happily, Engel wrote the book for us to savour: Lunatic Villas, a joyous book about a woman who – even if she hasn’t got it right in the past – is trying to take full control of her own life.

The power of Engel’s writing is in its vividness and immediacy. Minn’s thoughts are compelling and convincing, and a dry humour weaves through the story. The house is as much a character as the people, and all are seen through Minn’s eyes, with irritation, love, despair. So tired by the end of the day that she can’t sleep, Minn wakes next morning in a mood of mild optimism, and it is impossible not to share with her the small hope that she will break through the inertia, or at least that things will get brighter in the future.


  1. Sounds like it has the potential to a bit of a weeper. At least you say she has some comic relief thrown in there.

  2. This really sounds good. I'm going to add it to my wishlist, thanks!

  3. John. not a weeper because Minn's thoughts, while full of self-deprecation are also full of wit - she's an interesting woman in that late stage of pregnancy which makes everything you attempt look impossible, and maybe it ought to be compulsory reading for people who haven't been pregnant.

    Dewey, in the next day or two I'm going to post about the other book I mentioned, Lunatic Villas - everything Engel wrote is worth reading, but this one's FUN.


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