Picks and Pans Review: Mrs. Caliban

updated 05/12/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/12/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Rachel Ingalls

This bizarre story, Ingalls' third work of fiction, was originally published in England in 1982. Then last year the British Book Marketing Council named it one of the 20 best American novels written since World War II, and it is now getting renewed attention. (The Council list puts Ingalls, an American living in England, in the estimable company of John Updike and Eudora Welty.) Her heroine, Dorothy Caliban, is a very ordinary housewife with no children and a husband with whom she's "too unhappy to get a divorce." She hears extraordinary voices on the radio—during a cake mix commercial, for example. So she isn't sure whether a broadcast about Aquarius, the "extremely dangerous" creature who escaped from a scientific research institute, is for real—until he appears in her kitchen while she is making hors d'oeuvres for her husband, Fred. She hands the creature a stalk of celery as a peace offering. He bites. Larry, as he prefers to be called, is very well built, and—despite his dark-green skin, low ears, flat nose, webbed hands and feet—Dorothy finds him very attractive. He takes up residence in the Calibans' guest room. Dorothy and Larry have an affair. She prepares his favorite foods: spaghetti with margarine, cucumbers, avocados. He helps her clean and asks profoundly naive questions about human habits that she has trouble answering. Meanwhile Fred has no idea about any of this. He's busy with an illicit affair of his own, if a more mundane one. Ingalls skillfully combines fairy tale, science fiction and ho-hum reality. Her monster is not so much a character as a mirror in which the idiosyncrasies-humorous and tragic—of human life are reflected. Dorothy is a woman caught between a depressing web of deceptive relationships and the fantasy that frees her from them. While the plot is extravagant, the writing is so simple, the tone so quiet, that Mrs. Caliban has the creeping effect of a story read aloud at bedtime. When it's over, the characters live on in that mental niche that is somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. (Gambit, $8.95)

From Our Partners