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.

17 thoughts on “Sarah Gardner Borden: Games to Play After Dark (2011)

  1. The secret live of Pippa Lee is a book? I didn’t know that. Keanu was in the movie version, I haven’t seen it yet.

    Nice review.. but I couldn’t figure what the game is?
    Kate sounds like a poor woman

    • Yes, it is a novel and much better than the movie although I liked the movie as well. I like Keanu Reeves and Robin Wright. It isn’t really a game, it’s an allusion to having sex.
      She decidely is a poor woman and what happened with her father is far from pleasant. Colin is actually not such a bad guy he just doesn’t get her at all.

    • I’m a bad judge when it comes to depressing. It needs to be extremely black in order for me to think something is depressing. I did not think Arlington Park was depressing at all. I thought Véronique Olmi was very depressing and so was Primo Levi. I don’t think this is depressing, but sad and there are elements I found infuriating. I think she writes well and you can relate with or without children as she illustrates how conversations can go wrong and how at a certain point anything you say can be misinterpreted and there are always such a lot of things left unsaid and the lack of time… And one of the children really is a nightmare.

      • I have a Véronique Olmi at home, I haven’t read it yet.
        I thought Arlington Park well written but the story was depressing. These mothers stuck at home with children when they don’t really enjoy the company of children was depressing. Their life was a prison.

        Nothing can prepare a couple to the love storm a child represents in life. You spend 9 months imagining it but you can’t know until the baby’s there.

        • It was Bord de mer. Just too familiar. Almost exactly like my mother was.
          I don’t remember that they didn’t like their children in Arlington Park. Kate does like children, a lot and all the parts when she is close to them are very touching. One could be unkind and say after she had them, she didn’t need Colin anymore. I think her life was much more affected by the children than his. And because she stayed home he thought they were totally her business.
          I’m still not sure whether the theory that two children menas twice as much work is really true. It depends. If they are easy it could be simpler, they have someone to play. I know women who had only one child and it was a nightmare and one who had four and it was easy.

          • I have Bord de mer too.
            I think the first child is the tsunami especially because you need to respect its needs. And particularly its schedule. Then you start to understand why your parents live the way they do. (eat always at the same hours etc.) When the second comes you already have a family life.
            In wars sleep deprivation is considered as torture, right? I know children who needed 3 or more YEARS to sleep a whole night without waking their parents. That must be awful and have terrible impacts on a couple’s life.

            • The sleep deprivation is a theme here as well but it seesm as if the second child was more of a tsunami than the first. I know parents whose first child slept right away, if the second doesn’t…
              But sure, it changes your life completely. Anything major changes your life completely, so it is normal but I can understand when couples split soon after the first child. Sometimes it’s just what it needed to make a not very solid construction fall apart.

    • I found out something recently, I can get American books that are not available on amazon.co.uk on amazon.de. This one may not even be available in the UK yet. I think that it shows so well how people quarrel and what makes this type of conversation disastrous. Instructive and explanatory, yes. 🙂 It has been compared to Revolutionary Road. I still need to read that and Crossing to Safety as well.

  2. This sounds really interesting and very astute. I’d like to get hold of it, and am interested also in your tip about amazon.de. Do you think I can order through them even though I live in the UK?

    • I’d be curious to read what you think. I’m sure you can order from amazon.de. I don’t know about the rate for deliveries though. I order English books from all three sites (de/uk/fr) depending on where it is available and cheaper.

  3. I’m thrilled to read that you really enjoyed this book. I picked up a copy at the flea market recently. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet but I thought it look good and I’m really looking forward to it now!

  4. Pingback: Best and Worst Books 2011 « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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