Title: The Cactus
Author: Sarah Haywood
Published: January 30th 2018
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: 4.5 stars
IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO BLOOM.
People aren’t sure what to make of Susan Green – a prickly independent woman, who has everything just the way she wants it and who certainly has no need for messy emotional relationships.
Family and colleagues find her stand-offish and hard to understand, but Susan makes perfect sense to herself, and that’s all she needs.
At forty-five, she thinks her life is perfect, as long as she avoids her feckless brother, Edward – a safe distance away in Birmingham. She has a London flat which is ideal for one; a job that suits her passion for logic; and a personal arrangement providing cultural and other, more intimate, benefits.
Yet suddenly faced with the loss of her mother and, implausibly, with the possibility of becoming a mother herself, Susan’s greatest fear is being realised: she is losing control.
When she discovers that her mother’s will inexplicably favours her brother, Susan sets out to prove that Edward and his equally feckless friend Rob somehow coerced this dubious outcome. But when problems closer to home become increasingly hard to ignore, she finds help in the most unlikely of places.
The Cactus is a book that comes with such a visually stunning cover, it is filled with flourishing cactus plants, set against a shimmering metallic background and I will admit that it won me over instantly. I also adore the cover tagline that adds further embellishment to this already spectacular cover. The Cactus is comes with the cover quote “It’s never too late to bloom”. Self acceptance and life changes at a mature age are the central themes that dominate The Cactus, the debut novel from Sarah Haywood. I tend to shy away from book comparisons, but this is a novel that echoes the work of the great Graeme Simsion of The Rosie Project (he endorsed the front cover). The Cactus also reminded me somewhat of another debut I loved last year, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. But, The Cactus is a novel that easily makes its own mark and it will worm its way into your heart.
The apt title of the book refers to the lead, Susan Green’s love for cactus plants, which she keeps in her work office. It could also be seen as a metaphor for the bristly nature of the heroine of the story. Susan Green is the peculiar protagonist who sits at the helm of The Cactus. When the novel opens, Susan is forty five years old, she is a fiercely independent woman, who is set in her ways. With a functional London flat, a long standing career and a relationship that has strict ground rules, Susan’s carefully ordered life is just as she wants it. Until one day, her world comes tumbling down. The death of her mother follows the news that Susan is also in the family way. The Cactus follows Susan as she grapples with getting her head around the prospect that she is to become a mother, which introduces her to whole new set of testing experiences. Life for Susan Green suddenly becomes very complicated.
It was an immense pleasure to be introduced to the writing of debut novelist Sarah Haywood. The Cactus is a novel that I can easily attest to enjoying from cover to cover. Much of my adoration for this novel comes from the lead, Susan Green. I will make it clear that some will not warm to Susan straight away, or not at all. Her spiky, feminist, forthright and often odd nature may get under the skin of some readers, but for me, I loved her from the start. Some reviewers have remarked on their inability to connect to such a cutting character, but persisting with Susan really does pay off. I enjoyed the metamorphosis of Susan very much.
I liked the mystery that surrounded Susan, which hits you smack bang in the face in the first pages of the novel. I liked how Susan was represented by Haywood as a puzzle or enigma. My money was on some kind of trauma from an accident (I was somewhat close in my estimations) and then I gravitated towards Susan sitting on the autism spectrum. Either way, I enjoyed the chance to get to know Susan. As the book progresses we learn more about Susan’s childhood and life as a young adult through the flashbacks that were included in this novel, as well as her interactions with the delightful characters in this novel. It becomes apparent that Susan is a very quirky woman set in her ways, but at times, her reasoning did make sense and even seemed rational. I admired her for sticking to the routines that made her feel safe. All the same, it was thrilling to see her break free from her restrictions and live in the moment in the latter stages of the book.
Supporting Susan is a fine cast of individuals who are all fully fleshed out characters. Protagonists such as Susan’s brother Edward, memories of her mother and father, aunt Sylvia, her twin cousins, neighbour Kate, friend with benefits Richard, university pal Brigid and finally Rob are all so full of life they burst out from the pages of this novel. As the book is solely narrated by Susan in first person, we get an excellent feel for these characters in the eyes of Susan. Her observations of the people in her life are sharp, nuanced and even a crack up at times! The Cactus is a book that I would definitely say is a character dominated novel. The narrative, which mainly revolves around the battle for Susan’s mother’s inheritance and Susan’s impending motherhood, shapes itself around the character set of this delightful novel.
In terms of themes, The Cactus works well to draw our attention to a number of issues. Within the novel, Haywood examines memories, upbringing, sibling rivalry, alcoholism, serious illness, grief, lost love, inheritance disputes, marital problems, single parenthood, adoption and mature age pregnancy. Each of these themes are coloured in perfectly by Haywood. I appreciated the lens in which Haywood puts on these topics, through the unusual guise of Susan Green, the lead.
On the whole I loved this novel, very much. There was only one small drawback. The book beats slowly. It took me much longer than usual to get through The Cactus but I did seem to savour every word. However, as a fast reader, this aspect of the book perplexed me! Despite my reservation about the slow pace, I took great joy in being a part of Susan’s rise. It really was a touching experience to watch her grow into her own and embrace all facets of her life. The final message I took from this book is that it is never too late to bloom, do not let life pass you by!
The Cactus is a simply wonderful debut. Sarah Haywood definitely has a new fan!
The Cactus by Sarah Haywood was published on 30th January 2018 by Hachette Australia. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of The Cactus, Sarah Haywood, visit here.
*I wish to thank Hachette Australia for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.