Adam Baron’s new book argues that couples have to work hard to avoid ‘losing’ themselves after children, writes Alex Galbinski
Adam Baron didn’t want to write the clichéd story of ‘boy meets girl’, with the pair living happily ever after.
So instead he wrote about a loved-up couple who struggle to balance their own relationship with the pressure of sharing responsibility of raising their young children.
His new novel, Blackheath, tackles this idea of equal parenting – something Baron says has never been approached before in British literature – and the impossibility of having it all, regardless if you are a man or a woman.
“My intention was to start a book with two people who have absolutely everything, who are living their lives in the right way and doing the jobs they want to do, but it’s so hard to share parenting,” explains Baron, an MA course director in creative writing at Kingston University.
“[My characters] James and Alice are the first couple in British fiction to do this equally and they do it through choice.
“My belief is that children set you off on a whole new relationship where you have to re-find your way to be a couple and that’s what Alice and James do. The way they are at the end of the book are worse. I wrote a novel backwards – about how people who have found themselves go into life.”
In its opening pages, Blackheath reveals an almost predatory mother, Amelia, who dares to admit to herself that she feels nothing for her daughter.
She is also in the process of attempting to engineer some sort of affair with James, a father she has just met at her daughter’s school – and who is happily married, in a cosy cocoon, to Alice. Two taboos broached right there.
Baron’s witty and biting novel explores the desires of Amelia, a freelance casting director, and her husband Tim, a larger-than-life theatre director who is used to getting his own way.
Then there is Alice, a poet and academic, and James, a fellow academic on sabbatical, as they navigate the difficult journey through parenting, pursuing a career and the choices they make.
But relationships are not easy, particularly when you stop communicating your feelings.
“The self is swamped,” acknowledges Baron, who has previously written four crime novels.
“Towards the end of Blackheath, one character has the thought that when you meet someone, love seems to be this unique thing and it’s almost the world outside doesn’t exist for you.
“But what it leads you towards is marriage and children, who then leave you just like everyone else and you find yourself standing on the football touchline, with parents you don’t necessarily know, but with whom you find have the same values and desires.”
Gender roles dominate the themes in his book – something the 48-year-old father-of-three has an interest in and explored for his doctorate.
“James doesn’t think he’s masculine enough – he doesn’t realise that he’s living the life that’s best for him. He wants a bigger house because he can say that that’s what he has. He’s on a generational fog-line with no model.
“Alice says she’s never realised the weight of it all – she’s lost. They lose themselves. [You want to scream at them] ‘Just talk to each other – you have everything, yet you’re wrecking everything!’”
Baron, who takes amusing pops at middle-class life (Boden catalogues, oversized fridges and Tiger Mums do not escape his wrath), advocates keeping communication open and pushing yourself to remember who you were before having children. “You have to work really hard at everything, you have to consciously go out, you have to invest your time and your money in a babysitter.
“You have to almost brutally make time for things like sex – because you’re both exhausted – but these things are utterly crucial. “You have to turn the television off and talk and insist on that person remaining part of your life and not disappearing into the background,” he says, admitting that, when he goes out alone with his wife, he loves meeting her at their destination, rather than leaving their Greenwich house together (and yes, he does share parenting duties, in case you were worried!).
He rails against his peers who, he feels, have given up their desire to follow their dreams.
“I didn’t want to talk about babies all the time – I’m furiously interested in politics, literature, and art and the world and I just wasn’t prepared to give up on it.
“It’s not about looking back and wanting what I used to have; it was more a sense that I’m still here, I exist as an individual and I’m determined to stay that way.
“I adore my children, but I tell them: ‘Go and play, I’m talking to mummy and to the people who have come over for lunch.’”
Baron, whose father is Jewish, grew up as the youngest of seven children – his father’s parents came to England from Romania and Lithuania, lived by Chapel Street Market in Islington, and were incredibly poor – “poverty that you can’t imagine nowadays” and says he has a strong sense of his roots.
“My father got a scholarship to Dame Alice Owen’s [then in Islington] and he got beaten up every day because he was a Jew. “I grew up in rural Lincolnshire and had teachers saying to me: ‘Don’t be such a Jewboy’ if I wouldn’t share my sweets.
I grew up with a sense of Jewishness,” says Baron, whose wife is also Jewish (her Viennese-born grandmother fled the Nazis, and came to England but was interned as an enemy alien).
Baron is now halfway through writing a book that started off for his children, but his nine-year-old narrator is delving into “very serious things”.
With Blackheath, Baron says he is trying to open up a debate about how we live now as parents and has dared to put into words what others are thinking.
“People at my children’s school are reading the book and I think the shock of it isn’t that there is lots of sex in it – which there is – but that somebody is actually making a stand,” laughs Baron. “And people are looking at me in a slightly strange way, thinking: ‘Wow, you can actually resist.’”
• Blackheath by Adam Baron is published by Myriad Editions, priced £8.99, and is out now
The areas of Blackheath, top, and Greenwich are portrayed in the novel by author Adam Baron, above