Sarah Gardner Borden: Games to Play After Dark (2011)

An unsparingly honest portrait of one marriage’s devolution into train wreck. Borden covers it all—from the resentments that build over childcare to the sex that’s no longer fun. Reading Games to Play After Dark is as intimate an experience as reading someone’s diary.

It is hard to believe that Games to Play After Dark is Sarah Gardner Borden’s first novel. The topic, a marriage that falls apart, may not be the most original, the young mother who tries to combine the demands of her children and her husband and her personal needs, isn’t new but how she describes it, the details she evokes, the way she looks at what has been swept under the carpet and the bed and what is hidden in the closets is extremely well done.

There have been a few similar books in recent years. Rebecca Miller’s The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Rachel Cusk’s Arlington Park and Ayelet Waldman’s Love and Other Impossible Pursuits (see my review) are a few I have read. Many recent thrillers and crime novels also explore marriage and family life. One of the distiguishing traits of this novel is that Borden looks at sexuality in a detailed way and handles the topic explicitly. The games that are played after dark, are indeed of specifically sexual nature. More than any other recent writer of domestic disasters, Borden shows human beings as sexual beings, initiating with the discovery of sexuality by young people and leading to the sexuality of adults in- and outside of marriage.

Kate and Colin meet at a party, fall in love and get married soon after. The first years are intense and enjoyable but the moment the sexual attraction diminishes, things get complicated.

She became finicky about sex, wanting it only occasionally. Her body began to feel like a recently tidied room that she didn’t want Colin to mess up.

After the first child the marriage gets really awry. Kate has a hard time to cope and Colin, who is on a career path, doesn’t help much. The discussions and disputes that follow are some of the best bits of writing in this novel. A second child seems a good idea at first, after all, they want to be a “real family” and that is, according to Kate and their friends, only possible with a second child. After the second child is born, Kate doesn’t want any physical intimacy from Colin anymore. Her need of tenderness and proximity is covered by her daughters. She loves to lie in bed with them, feel their warm bodies.

But there is also decidedly more house work with a second child and the second daughter, on top of that, is a horrible brat. A child from hell. Scenes like the one below are all too frequent.

How much longer could she continue, could she stand it: the serving, the directing, the resulting absurd sense of abuse, the constant tiny negotiations of space? On the landing as Kate dropped the stuff and bent to collect her keys from her purse, Robin kicked her in the behind.

The older the girls get, the uglier the marriage turns. Although they try hard, they go to see a therapist, they try “date nights” and “family dinner”, things always go wrong. Kate and Colin fight constantly and more than once they both display violent behaviour. It is obvious Kate cannot take it much longer. She desperately tries to find a way out and the first path she chooses, is the well-known one of the affair. This is the only bad story line Borden told, not so much because she chose to have Kate start an affair (after all this seems more than common) but because it doesn’t seem plausible. In any case, the affair doesn’t last very long, and Kate will have to find another way out.

It’s a well-told book, I loved reading it and was captivated. I also appreciated that Borden seems to say, that not every marriage has to turn out like this, having children doesn’t need to be like this but there are combinations of people and circumstances that seem doomed from the start. Kate’s character and her past prepared the ground for this disastrous marriage. And Kate, when thinking back and remembering the beginning when they just got married wonders:

She had no idea if at that point things could have gone one way or the other, or if only one way, this way, had been available.

It is obvious that it isn’t only Colin’s fault, things go wrong, although, during their disputes, we think it is. The reasons lie much deeper and we see some of it in an early passage.

She could see that doing what he wanted was compelling for both of them, and that to interfere would interfere with the sexual chemistry that served as foundation for their bond. “Okay,” she said. “I don’t care where I am, ” she said, “so long as we’re together.” But later that night, doubt moved in her.

Kate doesn’t know herself and has not learned to analyze her feelings which is a bad foundation for a marriage. She had a complicated relationship with her father, which we get to know in flashbacks all through the novel.

Sexual attraction, sexuality and intimacy are core themes in Games to Play After Dark . The way they are described indicates clearly that they are no games but, on the contrary, powerful forces that need to be handled with care or they will constantly influence, interfere and fire back.

I’m very interested to see where Sarah Gardner Borden will go after such a promising debut novel.