I’m going to try to review both the novels I loved today because I’m in the middle of two more wonderful books and unless I keep up, I’m going to have a serious review logjam. I’ve just been having a look around the internet at the reviews already out there for the novels by Kathryn Heyman and Nell Freudenberger and I must say I was a bit surprised to find a lot of mixed comment. I loved them both, without reservation. But both are based on the dual narrative structure where two stories are brought together, and in both cases, criticism was directed at one of the storylines because it was considered less convincing, less intriguing, less developed than the other. Naturally there was no consent as to which of the storylines was the weaker, just that one appealed less. I wondered how much any dual narrative is going to fall foul of this? I can remember A. S. Byatt’s Possession coming under the same kind of attack, as did Lyndsay Clarke’s brilliant novel, The Chymical Wedding. Maybe if you use two stories to compare and contrast then inevitably one will seem like the ‘right’ narrative, the fixed point, against which the other is judged. One will seem to have the more vibrant setting, the more atmospheric detail and the other will be the washed out version. Well, maybe. It’s a form of novel I really enjoy because in the hands of a good novelist, there is so much suggested in the interstices of the two tales, in the shadows where they overlap and the echoes they create.
Kathryn Heyman’s novel, Captain Starlight’s Apprentice is set in Australia and is a tale of women brought to the edge of their sanity and their resources by the misguided actions of men. Jess is brought up in the circus at the beginning of the century, when her father decides that for the sake of the family’s finances, she has to be farmed out to make her own way in the world. Fortunately she has a talent for horse riding and she quickly becomes the star of their show, and then one of the pioneer actresses in the embryonic film industry. Inevitably her luck turns when her husband, the Chinese manager of the circus, disappears leaving her pregnant. And that’s only the start of her troubles; eventually the androgynous outlaw she portrays in movies becomes a part she must play for real. Running in tandem to her story is that of Rose, who has emigrated to Australia in the 1950s so that her husband, Joe, can make a new start after the war. Alas, it is not the start they planned as her premature labour on board the boat out means that they cannot make the arduous journey to Joe’s teaching post and must set up temporary home in appalling immigrant’s quarters whilst Joe finds shift work at the factory. Rose has only been persuaded to leave her beloved family behind because Joe has pulled rank as head of the household. This is his desire, his dream, and he is utterly incapable of empathy or affectionate concern when Rose cannot endorse it as he wishes. Homesickness combined with postnatal depression push her over the edge and into an asylum where she receives the brutal treatment of electric shock therapy. The shocks that are supposed to staple her back to reality do little more than blow craters in her memory, and she struggles to remember what has happened to her baby boy, aware that something is badly wrong. The novel will work to weave her story into that of Jess, and together they will find the strength to face up to their respective betrayals, with a happy ending for one of the women and a tragedy for the other.
What’s really remarkable about this novel is the quality of the writing. Heyman’s voices are exquisitely rendered, Jess’s a bold, courageous yelp of passion, Rose’s a shimmery, vividly impressionistic flow of dissolution, and they appeal to each other in their dire straits as Rose requires Jess’s stamina for life and Jess needs to know something that only Rose can tell her. This is a book with a lot to say about the terrible treatment women received at the hands of men over the first sixty years of the twentieth century, but also much about their resilient spirit, their bravery, their capacity for love. Jess’s story is the thrilling one, Rose’s tale is emotionally moving, but they combine to offer a fantastic take on the sisterhood that can stretch in ghostly fashion across space and time when women are at their wit’s end.
The setting for Nell Freudenberger’s novel, The Dissident, could not be more different. This novel tells the story of Yuan Zhao, a celebrated Chinese performance artist and political dissident who is the recipient of a government grant to spend a year in Los Angeles. There he teaches art to the obstreperous teenagers at St Anselm’s School for girls, supposedly preparing new work for a prestigious exhibition in the spring, but in fact copying the scenes from a 14th century Chinese scroll entitled Liu Chen and Ruan Zhao in the Tiantai Mountains. He is hosted in LA by a wealthy, dysfunctional family, the Traverses. Cece is a mother doing her best to play it all by the book but having her teenage children subvert and disrespect her at every turn. In the meantime her marriage to boring analyst Gordon is decidedly rocky, whilst his brother, the endearingly hopeless Phil, turns up in her life again after a lengthy absence, hoping to rekindle their affair. The point of contact between the two stories will be a clever, allusive ongoing conversation about what we may or may not call a work of art. Yuan Zhao’s half of the narrative recounts his involvement with the infamous Beijing East Village community of artists, of whom his cousin, X, was one of the leaders. In defiance of the law (for which most of the group are eventually imprisoned) they explore the possibilities of performance art, art which uses their bodies in strange and yet suggestive ways. Yet the problem with such art is its transitory nature; it exists only in the moment of its performance and challenges all established notions of copyright and authorship. If all that remains of this art is the photographic images of one of the group members, is such archive evidence a different art form altogether? And who, then, is the owner of the work of art, its ultimate creator? These questions are deftly sewn into a narrative that gradually comes to suggest that a mystery hangs around the figure of Yuan Zhao, who wonders what makes authentic art whilst copying his beautiful scrolls and who may himself be someone else’s creation.
In the other storyline that focuses on the LA family, art takes on different guises. Phil is over on the West coast because one of his off-Broadway plays is going to be turned into a Hollywood movie, whilst his and Gordon’s sister, Joan, is a novelist with a bad case of sibling rivalry, unable to accept Phil’s success and fretting about her own worth as a writer. Her relentless pursuit of Yuan Zhao as a possible topic for a novel is funny and yet also profound. But the main character on this side of the narrative is Cece, whose good nurturing intentions seem always destined to flounder in the disinterest or resistance of others. Perhaps it’s my relentless fascination with mothering, but I began to wonder about motherhood as itself a work of art composed of many daily performances. Cece has the script and she performs to the best of her ability, but her mothering is the equivalent of Yuan Zhao’s scrolls – it’s nothing more than a competent copy, attractive enough to look at but empty and devoid of originality. It’s only when Cece realizes that she has to put her real self into the difficult task of mothering awkward teenagers that the way forward begins to look clearer for her. I found this a delightful read – clever and yet wholly unpretentious, an amusing, entertaining novel that slipped down so very easily and yet left me thinking about all the questions it had quietly posed.
For me, then, two wonderful novels, both beautifully crafted. Next up for fiction will be Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont and Rebecca Stott’s Ghostwalk. Perhaps it’s me, but I do seem to have hit a really good stretch at the moment.