When I was in my early twenties I loved historical novels, and it’s a surprise to me still that for many years I stopped reading them. I was particularly addicted to those with a dual time frame, devouring Lyndsay Clarke’s The Chymical Wedding and the undeniably trashy but compelling Lady of Hay by Barbara Erskine. But maybe the rot set in with A. S. Byatt’s Possession. I was warmly appreciative of the story’s intentions, but I confess I skipped all those screeds of mock-19th century epic verse. In the same way that science fiction can become unwieldy, labouring under the necessity of explaining a whole other world, so I feared that some historical novels become weighty and slow with descriptions of the hardship, the poverty, the inequalities or the delicious exoticness of another era, to the extent of ending up a self-indulgent chunkster. Or else history became the excuse for a cartoon, or a bodice-ripping romance (not that Lady of Hay escapes this critique exactly, it’s just that it submits to the cliché with such joyful abandon). It wasn’t until I read Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith that I remembered how possible it was to use the past constructively, playfully and extravagantly in a way that seemed just right.
Happily it was with Sarah Waters rather than A. S. Byatt in mind that I read Emma Darwin’s The Mathematics of Love. This is another dual narrative, intertwining the stories of Stephen Fairhurst, an ex-soldier who left more than half a leg behind him at the battle of Waterloo and is trying to rebuild his life at Kersey, the family house he has recently inherited, and Anna Ware, a dissolute if intelligent teenager who has been packed off by her neglectful mother to spend the heatwave summer of 1976 at the same Kersey residence, now a run-down school that houses her uncle, her mentally unstable grandmother and a small, disturbed child called Cecil. What makes this such an impressive debut novel is the quality of the two distinct voices that Emma Darwin manipulates. Stephen’s gallant, formal, dignified voice is an elegant performance of 19th century ventriloquism, and Anna’s bruised but vulnerably open mix of longing and offhand cynicism is every bit as convincing. Whilst it is amazing that both can have been through so much and yet remain such sympathetic and endearing characters, their voices persuade us implicitly that it is passion that keeps the human spirit vital. Stephen’s trajectory in the narrative will involve a return to his own battle-torn past to say goodbye to a woman he loved beyond measure; only this way will he be able to love and fully engage with his life again. For Anna, her stay at Kersey will be a journey through the looking glass into the worlds of representation and desire, when the kindly couple who live nearby, Theo and Eva, introduce her to the world of photography, and a great deal more besides. Both Anna and Stephen are damaged people, physically and emotionally, having seen too much and been disillusioned by mankind in general, and the narrative obliges us to confront the sheer ugliness of what human beings can do to one another in love and in war. In a third voice that arises only briefly at the end of each chapter, we are presented with scenes from Stephen’s soldiering days that were certainly at the limit point of my reading capacity, so violent and repulsive were they in their depiction of the army in times of play, battle and self-discipline. But both of them are in some ways rescued by the alternative perspective of art; Anna through her introduction to photography and Stephen through his growing friendship with the artist Lucy Durward. The couples of Anna and Theo, Stephen and Lucy, seemed to me to represent the necessary intermarriage of art and reality, each partner needing the other to be complete, each able to supply the other with the perspective they require, in the same way that the past and the present speak to one another in an ongoing dialogue of comfort and support, if we can but tune in to it.
Art becomes the medium of a ghostly exchange between the two narrative strands. Anna is given a stash of letters by a local museum curator that were written by Stephen to Lucy and that have survived into the present day. A shadowy figure standing at the windows of the hall in one of her photographs makes Anna wonder whether Stephen’s presence lingers on, and a final daguerreotype reveals to her the end of his story. But the artistry of the novel is the place where the past and present truly intermingle. Relationships repeat, emotions echo one another across time and space, the shades of past and present reach out in mutual appeal, suturing the two strands of the story together with large, unformed stitches. Nothing is stated bluntly in this narrative, but the reverberations and repeated patterns suggest a mathematics of love in which strange equations are gradually solved with the passage of time. The very concept of the mathematics of love is left unexplained, but the two love stories seem to suggest that every relationship is a matter of balance, with as much given as taken away in the final reckoning, with the traces of the relationships of the past – not least in the form of children – as a recurring remainder stretching out through time. It was this aspect of the novel, the hardest one to talk about because it is so subtle and yet so bewitchingly present in the gaps and corners of the narrative, that I most appreciated. But overall this is a wonderful read, powerful and vibrant and exquisitely written, particularly in the sections in which Anna discovers the miracles of photography and Stephen gives way to the story of his lost love. I think Emma Darwin has a new novel out already and I will certainly be looking out for it; she’s a talent to watch (and she also has a fantastic writing blog here).