Book Review: The Cactus – Sarah Haywood

The Cactus by Sarah Haywood

About The Book

It’s never too late to bloom … People aren’t sure what to make of Susan Green. Family and colleagues find her prickly and hard to understand – but Susan makes perfect sense to herself.

Age 45, 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. And things can only get worse … at least in Susan’s eyes.

The Cactus by Sarah Haywood has garnered comparisons with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman and I can see why. Both books feature a female protagonist who exists slightly outside of society and for whom life is very black and white causing funny and eyebrow raising moments but for me, this is where the comparison ends.

Our protagonist is 45 year old Susan, civil servant and hoarder of succulents. The book opens with the death of her mother, and so she returns to Birmingham, to the family home, where her brother currently lives. He is a bit of a waster who roams from woman to woman and is unable to hold down a job. Susan discovers that he has let his friend, Rob move in to the house too whilst he buys his own property, much to Susan’s chagrin. When the will is read and she finds that the house has been left to her brother she is incensed and sets out trying to prove that he strong-armed their mother into making the decision.

I wanted to love this book, I really did, but for me, it was a little flat. I don’t need to like a character to enjoy a book but I just found Susan utterly unrelatable and dare I say it, a little two dimensional. It feels ‘easy’ to write women in their 40s who are childless and single as being slightly odd and a little annoying. It is as if they can’t exist as a fully formed adult without these things and therefore must be weird. It made me uncomfortable, and yes, for Susan, there is a story arc of personal growth but it was a little too on the nose for my liking.

Saying that though, there is a lot that I did enjoy and thought was explored well especially when it came to family dynamics and the difficulty of sibling relationships. For Susan, her brother has always been the golden child who can do no wrong. He is a man child who ricochets from mistake to mistake and there is always somebody there to pick up the pieces. He and Susan are like chalk and cheese and I thought that the way they could rankle and annoy one another, without even really trying, was a perfect portrayal of siblings. He calls her Suze, which she hates, so of course he does it more just to get under her skin. There is nobody who can annoy you more than a sibling, they always know just what to do to drive you to distraction causing untold grief for both parties in this book.

Throw in a disputed will and the sibling rankling turns into all out war. Susan’s adamant that her mother did not want to leave the house to her brother and so goes to her aunt, Sylvia for help. I ‘liked’ Sylvia and her upwardly mobile ways, she seemed a bit Hyacinth Bucket and she made me smile on occasion even if she and her daughters did veer into caricature territory occasionally. As a foil to show the differences between Susan’s family life growing up (which we learn gradually in increments) it was well executed throwing into sharp relief how tough things were with an alcoholic dad on the scene. These moments were quite tough to read but delicately handled overall.

I think lots of people will love this book, but sadly it wasn’t for me. It is an easy and quick read and there are moments of sadness mixed with light relief and humour to keep a a nice balance. I think it would make a great book club book (which is lucky as it is the book for my book club this month) as it’ll certainly provoke a discussion.

Where You Can Buy It

The Cactus by Sarah Haywood is published by Two Roads and is available in both ebook and paperback.

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