Creepy and Maud
Author: Dianne Touchell
Fremantle Press RRP $19.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
Creepy and Maud is one of those books that lingers long after the last page is turned. I had to put it aside for a few days to gather my thoughts about it. That’s not a bad thing – it’s more that certain aspects of the story affected me deeply and I needed time to settle my thoughts.
Aimed at the YA market, this debut novel from Dianne Touchell is a strikingly unusual story charting the relationship of two teenage social misfits – Creepy and Maud. Most of their “relationship” takes place in the space between their windows (they live next door to each other and their bedroom windows are facing).
Creepy is a watcher; he watches people from the sidelines without them realising, both at home and school. “They don’t know I see that stuff”, he says of his parents and the battleground that is their suburban home. He’s like a sponge, taking everything in and then squeezing out opinions in his mind to make sense of it all. He sees his parents fighting over petty grievances, the way his father has his mother and the dog “trained” (I found this aspect disturbing – more later), his mother’s drinking … and sometimes, the remnants of almost-forgotten tenderness.
“Like sometimes when he and Mum are watching telly together, he’ll run his index finger along the back of Mum’s hand and her lungs will fill again … I sort of like seeing it, the same way I like seeing them fight. They don’t know I see anything.”
Maud is a “puller”. She pulls her hair out, from the hair on head and eyebrows, to her pubic hair, leaving bloodied bald spots as evidence – she’s developed this condition (called trichotillomania) as a means of dealing with stress and anxiety. She watches her parents’ helplessness and embarrassment at her condition, but can’t stop. She finds comfort in pulling, as well as in drinking and fives (five words, five syllables and so on). And she also watches and listens, taking everything in: “They do not know I listen, or think that if I do listen, I do not understand. They think I am disabled. Unstable. Incapable.”
From the distance of two windows, Creepy falls in love with Maud, sceptical as he is about love itself. Neither of the two protagonists have had the best model – consider this from Creepy: “I have no idea how people get if they are happy. I don’t know enough happy people to know how they act”. Sad, isn’t it? He won’t tell Maud, but she is aware that he watches – “He sees me closer than I have ever seen myself” – and keeps on watching, despite what he sees. Their relationship develops mainly through their inner dialogues, which are touching, dark, funny and confronting all at once.
The story is deceptively simple, but digs far deeper. It goes beyond a simple romance (peopled with complex characters) and examines the impact of family relationships and values on children, as well as giving a glimpse into the stigmas that mental illness and just being different carry.
It’s a boundary-pushing novel – I really struggled with the description of Creepy’s father training the dog to bite his mother (the whole notion of control by fear really struck a nerve because I see it as a form of domestic violence, if by proxy). It’s also funny, albeit in a darkly weird way (just like the characters), moving, and completely unconventional in terms of a love story. Beautifully written, in a style that displays Touchell’s skill as a writer but remains relevant to her market, I think this book will surprise many with its evocative plot and screwy characters who need a really big hug.
Available from good bookstores and Fremantle Press. This copy was courtesy of Fremantle Press.