Any book that, on page one, includes the sentence, “He was an enormous meat duvet” is a winner in my opinion. I need to go no further than that initial few paragraphs to know I am hooked!
Bed is the tale of an obese, bed-ridden man named Malcolm, who weighs it at over one hundred stone. (For all of us living on the rebellious side of the Pond, one stone is equal to fourteen pounds.) While Mal is the central focus of the story, the narration is given by his younger brother, who, like all of the characters in the book, has been drawn into Mal’s orbit, unable to break away from the strong gravitational pull his lifestyle choices have created.
This book could easily have veered into the realm of mockery and disdain for a person who has made the conscious choice to never again leave his bed, but instead, the heart of the story lies in pondering what exactly it means to love another human. Each of the characters feel love for others, but the way that emotion is expressed (or hidden) varies widely, as do the results of that love.
Mal decides on his twenty-fifth birthday that he doesn’t want all the “ing’s” life has to offer. He doesn’t want to be a part of marrying, buying, working, parenting, etc. The view he holds of his future is one in which he is expected to follow in the footsteps of the generation before, just plodding along until death finally comes for him. Rather than partake of those unwanted “ing’s” for several more decades, he resigns himself to his bed, and, as it turns out, his food.
While some parents would be horrified by this turn of events (I highly doubt mine would be thrilled if I were to move back in full-time), Mal’s mother sees her only purpose in life as caring for others. She cared for her mother until disease took her away. She cared for her husband and family for years. Once her two boys are grown, she was at a loss as to who she really was, until Mal moves back in that is. Now, with Mal ensconced in his childhood room, his mother can devote her time and energy to his constant care, which becomes a huge task as he grows larger and larger, loosing mobility and the means to complete even simple personal hygiene tasks on his own.
Mal’s father, younger brother and girlfriend are also forced into lives that are dictated by Mal. All seem to have lost the ability to break the chains that connect them to this aging anchor of a human being. While physical escape (to the attic, to a tent in the yard, to America even) is attempted, all are soon sucked back into the vortex of Mal’s needs- “selfish obesity,” rather than just morbid obesity, as it is referred to at one point in the novel.
Each character is connected to others through unique relationships, yet the binding tie throughout the book is the question of whether these relationships are healthy. All are love. There is no doubt about the emotion behind the ties that keep them together, but it seems that love on its own may not always be enough for a healthy relationship to exist. Love pushes each character to do the things s/he does, but the results of those choices aren’t always the best for that individual in the long run, nor are they pointing people in positive directions. Whitehouse does a great job of taking an emotion usually associated with affirmative and progressive interactions and casts it in a light where the reader is forced to look again. Is there something a bit malevolent lurking in the shadows of the family’s love for one another?
The tale is an odd one, I must admit. A book about a man weighing in at over a half ton is not something I would normally gravitate towards, but the dust cover was intriguing enough to make me want to know where the story was going to lead. The writing of this book is great! The descriptions are superbly written, not only of Mal’s condition and the physical toll it take on his body, but of how each family member struggles to make a place for themselves in world shrinking as Mal’s corporal domination continues. David Whitehead’s Bed earns: