The Cactus is the debut novel from Sarah Haywood which is about letting go of who people want you to be and who you have made yourself become because of your past experiences. It is about family conflict, death, grief, secrets, and forgiveness. It is not your typical contemporary fiction novel for all the right reasons and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Haywood’s discussions on motherhood, vulnerability, and complicated families.
The novel opens with the death of Susan Green’s mother. She returns to her mother’s home and childhood town to attend the funeral and help her brother tie up everything. Susan’s brother, Edward, is a rather terrible and self-serving person. He drinks too much, is extremely disorganised, and he is very careless when it comes to those around him. Susan is the exact opposite. She is reserved, closed-off (and one could argue untrusting) to those around her, and she also believes in ‘doing the right thing’. Both of them argue and battle over their mother’s will and who ‘should’ get what. Susan is particularly invested in getting her share of the inheritance sooner rather than later because she finds herself, at 45 years of age, pregnant. As we all know, life rarely likes to give a break and when things are going bad they tend to go really bad.
Within the Green family, there is a lot of trauma. Their father was an alcoholic who took out a lot of his rage out on his son, Edward. His drinking coupled with his careless patenting made it difficult for Susan and Edward to have a stable childhood. As previously mentioned though, they took this instability in very different directions and became almost polar opposites of each other. Susan’s self-reliance is both a virtue and a vice. It is the thing that keeps her efficient and hardworking, but it is also the thing that cuts her off from her peers and family. It also makes it impossible for her to have any friends. When she becomes pregnant, the idea of being financially indebted to the child’s father is overwhelming for her and we see a lot of her childhood traumas and fears manifest in how she handles her current relationships, including the relationship with her unborn daughter.
When the two siblings begin fighting over the will their mother had made, and specifically when their mother’s house would be sold, Susan starts to do some digging that reveals some pretty ugly and complicated truths about her family. The idea of family secrets is nothing new and probably if you dug deep enough into your own family history you could find all sorts of sordid details. For Susan, it is learning that her Aunty is actually her biological mother and that the woman who raised her was actually her Aunty. A similar narrative has happened in my own family and I can only say that these sorts of lies, no matter the good intentions behind them, are terrible.
Throughout the novel, Susan doesn’t know who to trust and when she finds out the news about her biological parents, her whole world comes crashing down. Through this new perspective, she looks over her past and sees it with new eyes that both illuminate truths and complicate relationships. Susan never gets to ask the woman who raised her why she did what she did and why it was kept secret. She feels betrayed by her biological mother for abandoning her and she never fully understands why her biological mother didn’t tell her sooner.
In reality, though, the answers to these questions also tie in with Susan’s personality and the idea of creating a perfect exterior that abides social and cultural traditions and never steps out of line. Her biological mother was a teenager when she got pregnant and she simply went away to visit family until the baby was due—a very old fashioned way of dealing with teen pregnancy. Upholding archaic social rules surrounding women essentially trap all of us. The idea of keeping face and the illusion of contentment and social status are things that lock us into lives that are not truly our own. As Susan unravels her own past which had been restricted and contorted through these social norms, she is able to break free from her own restrictive habits.
In the span of one year she learns who her real mother is, builds friendships, and learns that there is more than one way to be a woman through those new female friendships. To say that things work out perfectly for Susan, in the end, would be a stretch of the truth. However, Susan does learn to appreciate what she has and how to open up to new people.
This was a great summer read for me and something I can definitely recommend. Did you read the Cactus? As always, share the reading love.