Beloved Stanger 
Clare Boylan 
Counterpoint, $24 (cloth)

Prospective brides and grooms are advised not to pick up a copy of Clare Boylan's exquisitely bleak novel, unless they want to be scared single for life. Marriage as trap, prison, confinement, an endless compromise with no relief in sight: Beloved Stranger is enough to drive one screaming from the altar.

A million wedding albums contain the elements of the story Boylan tells in her sixth novel. Dick and Lily Butler have been married for a half-century, living in the same house in the same old suburb of Dublin. "Wedded bliss" isn't quite the term for what they share—more like "acceptance and friendship," Lily thinks, "for all that the other had had to put up with. Breaking in took a very long time. That was mostly what life was about."

While "breaking in" sounds more appropriate to horse-training than to marriage, it's tempting, early on, to admire Lily's pragmatism. We've been told, by countless shrinks and well-meaning friends, that marriage is no everlasting bed of roses. It must be worked at, and Lily has worked hard. Her genius—if one can call it genius—is to have made accommodation her life's work. At first blush, this appears to be the hard-won wisdom of a woman who has learned over decades how to keep her husband's rough edges from rubbing her raw. "You couldn't be half-married," Lily tells herself, "couldn't spit out the bits you didn't like." She and Dick drift along on "the circularities of married conversation. Little mantras of reassurance that keep the steering steady; foot just touching the clutch." In the marriage bed, she's always "locked up safely for the night … his old bones clamped around her."

Lily's own words—"breaking in," "locked up"—give her away. All is not right in this union. Has it ever been? One clue: the couple's only daughter, Ruth, has reached her early forties appalled at the very idea of binding herself to any man for life. "When young women entered their houses as wives," Ruth believes, "they never came out again, except with a pram or for the shopping. Girls who made so much noise together in their teens, once married fell silent like birds in the depths of winter…. Ruth thought most houses gave off darkness rather than light, and a faint odour of captivity, like cages in a zoo."

It's no shock to learn that thoroughly modern Ruth doesn't enjoy an easy relationship with the folks. She fled the parental cage as soon as she could, leaving behind a gift of sorts: a feminist library (Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer). Over the years, her mother quietly explores these strange messages from another world, where gender relations don't follow the strict rules Lily obeys. To Boylan's credit, this reading doesn't set off the expected consciousness-raising. Intrigued but not radicalized, Lily carries on; she soothes Dick by telling him that they're just "female" books—no real threats to the balance she works so hard to keep between them.

It's Dick who throws things off-kilter. He begins to suffer episodes of manic-delusional paranoia. He imagines intruders in the night; Lily doesn't dare ask where he got the shotgun with which he "defends" the house. In an obvious but effective metaphoric gesture he goes around opening all the windows, although it's cold as the grave outside: "'This place stinks!' He ran about urgently, as if there were evil spirits to be given exit. 'I must have air. I cannot breathe.'" He writes large checks and then claims that unscrupulous people have been swindling him.

Dick's no charmer at the sanest of times; one feels the deck has been stacked against him. See what women like Lily endure? Boylan seems to be saying. What—other than the author's desire to dramatize an extreme case of marital claustrophobia—brought these two mismatched souls together in the first place? Dick at least has some piss and vinegar left in him; his mad scenes are among the book's best. Once-reassuring rituals, the protocols of domestic life, warp into alien rites. In one hair-raising manic episode, Dick holds Lily hostage with the shotgun, rubbing the muzzle against her cheek while he takes his afternoon tea.

In another metaphoric turn of events, Dick is soon trussed up in the hospital, medicated and tamed, much as Lily has been contained by her marriage to him. A psychiatrist tells her:

What's happening now began, I think, a long time ago. Windows were left open inside his head and strange things blew in. Over the years, with great patience, you managed to get those windows shut, but somehow they've blown open again.

Nice words, but they don't answer the question of what a lifelong spouse can or will do when her sentence is unexpectedly commuted. Boylan seems more interested, throughout, in what Lily didn't do, didn't become, didn't express. "As you get older," Lily tells her daughter, "your dreams fade. It's your frailties that become absorbing. That's the thing you can share in a marriage."

Ruth doesn't agree, and her own choices bring her a shade closer to fulfillment. But Lily's comment gets at the novel's heart-chilling suggestion: it doesn't really matter whether one is happy or unhappy, whether (or whom) one marries and how well. The world can absorb bucketfuls of personal misery. Every choice is an accommodation, and one accommodation may be as good as the next. That's a hell of a message to send. Does Boylan really mean to send it? One suspects that it's a philosophical side effect of her decision to mismatch Dick and Lily from the start. We already know that people suffer, often without good reason; even a novel about unhappy people should contain more surprising news.

The surprise in Beloved Stranger—and it comes as a real and rare joy—is Boylan's writing. It soaks into these parched lives like rain into dry moss, as revitalizing as Lily and Dick's marriage is dessicating. Lovely images appear, ghostlike, at the oddest times and places:

She drank the tea looking out the window. She liked autumn, the soft light and clean air, the lush rhubarb and ruby varnish that tinted leaves before they withered. She watched a leaf come down, a frivolous descent, as if it was embarking, not dying. It did not simply drop off the tree but detached itself fastidiously and then glided into freefall, a flimsy scrap of gold against the wide, cold sky, like a teenager leaving home.

On a hospital visit to Dick, Lily "could see resentment growing like a hedge of brambles around him." Ruth looks in on her parents napping and is "oddly shocked to find them wrapped around one another, stiff and secretive as silver spoons." If Boylan can't find a fresh marital story to tell, at least she has discovered new ways of describing an old one: stuck together till the bitter end.