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Sunday, April 21

Puffball by Fay Weldon

Fay Weldon has been a favourite British writer of mine for years ever since I discovered her novels way back in college. My enthusiasm was so big that I had, in no time, turned Puffball into a lucky charm book for the entire batch of students. Now, many years later, I read the novel again and I was so surprised at her witty, hilarious writing that masterly explores the reign of women.

Puffball, Fay Weldon's seventh novel, is about Liffey and Richard, a young couple living in London who seem to be wishing for different things. She wants to live in the countryside, at Honeycomb Cottage, whereas he wants her to give him a child; they reach a compromise: he'll move there if she produces him a baby. Mabs and Tucker, already the parents of three children, are their odd neighbours, who befriend Liffey at first, only to try to cause her a miscarriage later. Liffey lives on the farm that once belonged to Mabs's mother so she feels it is only right one of her own children should inherit Honeycomb Cottage. Thus she gets her obedient husband, Tuck, to sleep with Liffey, believing that the child should be rightfully hers. Liffey gets pregnant with Richard but Mabs fears the child might be Tuck's and becomes so jealous of the young woman that she starts putting herbal brews in her food and drinks in order to make her have an abortion.

Puffball - "the smooth round swelling of the fungus made Liffey think of a belly swollen by pregnancy"- is a novel about witchcraft, motherhood and nature. Mabs believes in magic and old religions, in the enchanted power of plants, herbs and potions. She feels accomplished only by her maternity and seems to lack motherly affection towards her grown-up children. Her empty womb and Liffey's unexpected pregnancy drive her insane and she uses nature to turn Liffey's fruit barren. When finally the child is born and Liffey's happiness is complete, Mabs's fury is appeased by her own pregnancy and the child's resemblance to his father, Richard.

Fay Weldon's female characters are strong and passionate, independent and with a mind of their own. They draw their strength from men around them, from nature, from their sexuality and from pregnancy. Men are nothing but a means to their own feminine accomplishment, always insignificant creatures, bound to give in to their frivolous needs. I might not be such an extreme feminist, but I love the way her characters get empowered and rise above the conflicts of their conventional lives. I was rather amused by the idea of urban dishonesty versus rural passion, of how these powerful, independent, though treacherous, women seem to blossom in the quiet rural universe and gain confidence and completion from this pastoral Eden.
Puffball describes the eternal conflicts between reason and passion, spirit and flesh and women and men. This small-down rural drama is masterly portrayed by Fay Weldon who has an intriguing and readable style and the novel just makes you feel at ease and probably recognise your own weaknesses, unfulfilled desires and womanhood.