Pottering about in her nicely linoleumed kitchen one day, Dorothy Caliban is startled to be confronted by a green sea-monster named Larry. Half-man, half-frog, he is an escapee from a nearby research institute, on the run and wanted for murder. He is also curiously attractive, and a welcome diversion for the sad and fragile housewife. Billed as an amphibious cult classic, Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls is a clever and captivating read. Seemingly the decidedly uncommon tale of an inter-species love affair, but actually a delicious skewering of the American patriarchy.
Inspiring Guillermo del Toro’s film, The Shape of Water, and published to critical acclaim in 1982, Ingall’s feminist fable opens on a scene of mundane 20th century domesticity, as Dorothy sees husband Fred off to work and begins her Sisyphean housework schedule. Of course, he hasn’t kissed her goodbye for years, and whenever he works late she wonders if he’s having another affair. Since the death of their young son and a subsequent miscarriage, their marriage has followed a trajectory of ‘silences, separateness…single beds’
Nowadays, Dorothy may well be diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, but rewind half a century or more and medication was the order of the day.
‘…because you’re much easier to take care of that way. And then your brain is pretty much slugged into submission.’
Down but not quite out, Dorothy is in need of some serious TLC, which arrives in the form of Larry, six-foot-seven, green-skinned and froggish. He begs for help, telling her how he was captured off the Gulf of Mexico, brought to the institute and tortured in the name of research. Touched by his evident suffering, Dorothy decides to let him sleep overnight in the spare bedroom.
And there he remains, under the nose of the chronically unobservant Fred, helping Dorothy with the housework and offering enthusiastic fornication in spare moments. At night they swim in the ocean and have intense discussions about their different worlds and lives. Dorothy feels her happiness returning ‘like a glow, as though she had swallowed something warm, which was continuing to radiate waves of warmth.’
But the TV news continues to be filled with speculation about the ‘monster,’ and the police net may be closing in. Larry cannot continue his suburban land adventure. He wants to go home.
Ingalls’ wonderful novella illuminates the gender politics of the last century. From the male doctors who fed her anti-depressants to shut her up, to the patriarchal norms that tie her to the home, Dorothy’s life has been prescribed for her.
The motif of brittle mental health runs throughout the story, touching on various characters, but on Dorothy in particular. She’s been hearing strange voices coming from the radio lately but her assumption that she isn’t ‘going crazy,’ only serves to highlight further ambiguities in her extraordinary story.
Part of the excellent Faber Editions series, Mrs Caliban reflects the publisher’s emphasis on resurrecting radical literature for a new generation. Ingalls’ perceptive and ultimately very moving portrayal of societal constraint and personal desire, is a triumph.
Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls is published by Faber & Faber, 128 pages.
If you enjoy Mrs Caliban, you might also like Mrs Bridge by Evan S. Connell.