In The Name Of The Father

When I was interviewed for my lecturer’s post, I was one of four candidates. I happened to find out more about the others than was strictly ethical, as my colleague and friend who’d been on the panel told me all about them afterwards. When one candidate was asked what her research was about she said ‘I’m working on ugliness.’ At which point the Senior Tutor intervened: ‘How fascinating,’ he said, ‘because my research focuses on skin diseases.’ My friend told me she was longing to leap in, saying ‘Well I’m working on incest!’ All of which is to suggest that happiness rarely holds much interest for academics, and that my friend would have appreciated the novel I’ve just read, Repeat It Today With Tears, a blistering first novel from Anne Peile. Being more of a truth, love and beauty person myself, I admit to having experienced a certain hesitation before picking this book up. But I’m behind with my review copies and on a kick to read some really contemporary fiction, and Peile’s novel has just been longlisted for the Orange Prize. So I thought I’d give it a go. Incest isn’t exactly the most tempting storyline I’ve ever heard, and I feared another case of blatant sensationalism, but in fact this is an extraordinary first novel, extremely well-written, and, perhaps most surprising to me of all, entirely plausible and coherent.

The story belongs to Susie, an adolescent of exquisite awkwardness, who has been brought up by a harsh and loveless mother, unable to let go of the self-pity she feels at the abandonment of the family by Susie’s father, a waster and a drifter, a drunk and a womaniser called Jack. These old resentments keep Susie’s mother fierce and selfish, despite domestic security in the present with a driving instructor of distinct unloveliness, Ron, and Susie and her older sister, Lin. Dangerously starved of reliable love, insecure and neglected, Susie retreats into a fantasy world starring her absent father that one day she decides to translate into reality, when she finds out that her father is living not far from her in Chelsea. By now, Susie is 16 and has emerged swan-like from her former incarnation as an ugly duckling. She’s also extremely bright, particularly in classical languages, but these attributes are only valuable to her to the extent that they can gain her access to her father. Jack has cleaned up his act these days, after a stabilising marriage to a woman named Olive, who lives, conveniently enough, in Suffolk during the week. Susie stalks her father, figuring out his territory, and then picks him up in his local pub. She never tells him their true relation to one another.

It’s a nice touch that Susie should be most gifted at Latin and Greek. Although Oedipus is never mentioned, his shadow falls long and dark across the narrative. A few posts ago I was writing about the Oedipus complex, and how it’s best understood as a passionate longing for a parent that, when translated into adult terms, requires erotic or sexual terms for its power to be accurately described. I hadn’t read this book when I was writing that, but Repeat It Today With Tears turns out to be a perfect manifestation of the concept.  Susie wants only to be loved, but loved with such force and significance, such potency and completeness that only a sexual relationship will provide her with the necessary satisfaction. Peile handles this material very well; the reader never loses sight of the intrinsic ickiness of the relationship, but at the same time, Susie’s point of view is so powerfully portrayed that the beauty and the deliriousness of the love affair are somehow equally apparent. You can’t condone Susie, or mistake the damage that has been done to her, but there is no question that you can understand what it means to her, how something so wrong is transformed into something so right by her warped perspective. In the end I felt this was less about incest than about the madness of absolute conviction. Right up to the end, a shred of doubt might have saved Susie, but the only value in her life is invested in her searing passion, and by this flaming standard she stands and falls.

The book is split into two parts, the first concerning the affair and its outcome, the second negotiating the aftermath. Like any rewrite of Oedipus, the story is necessarily tragic, but despite the subject matter, this isn’t a depressing or traumatising read (and believe me, I would have put it down if it had been). The context for the story is 1970s London, and the era is wonderfully evoked, the dialogue in particular is brilliantly accomplished, and there are a number of other characters – Susie’s friend, Julian, and his odd parents, Eunice who rents a room in the same house as Jack, and even Olive, the wife – who are sympathetically portrayed and who bring lightness and compassion to the narrative. I cannot promise you a fun read, but my goodness it’s impressive, when you consider what this story might have become in less delicate hands. I found it a compelling and engrossing novel from an author who causes a shudder to go down my spine when I wonder what she will write next. Oh and kudos to Serpent’s Tail; after moaning about commercialism on the weekend, I have to say that here is a publisher who has never compromised on literary quality in any of the books they’ve sent me. More power to them.

13 thoughts on “In The Name Of The Father

  1. This sounds like the sort of thing I would find very interesting — I really admire authors who can handle this type of material and hold fast to the ambivalence and confusion that do sometimes exist in situations that would, on the surface, seem to be black and white. I was talking the other day to a friend who has a relative who has molested older children in the past, and I asked her whether she would ever allow her own children to be alone with that person. She replied that she is teaching her children what is right and wrong as far as touch, and that she is sure they would tell her. I pointed out that by the time they tell, it’s too late, but more than that…with older children, especially adolescents, the degree of internal confusion over sexuality is so huge, and the additional confusion that can come from emotional attachment to the adult is so equally huge, that she can’t rely on the child telling her. She can’t even rely on the child feeling that it’s wrong. Emotional need and starvation of the soul distort ways and means, as it seems this book shows well, to gauge by your review.

  2. Yeeeeee, this sounds a bit too disturbing and icky for me. (She said, having just finished The Secret History which also featured incest. And double homicide.) I don’t know, the synopsis just makes my skin crawl. If incest is going to be a plot point, I like to be several centuries removed from the action of the book. :p

  3. I used to be drawn to dark stories only. I have freed myself at last from this urge and do appreciate when a novel can touch a dark subject without necessarily inducing a full-blown depression. Peile sounds like an author I would like to read and will certainly be interested what she will write next.

  4. Wow, this sounds like a powerful book. And it’s only a first novel? Isn’t it great when first novels are so good and you know (hope) the author is only going to get better? It definitely causes a shudder down the spine!

  5. Probably not for me. I’m like Jenny. I can appreciate the artistry of the author and hope she writes something I will want to read, but I think this one would have too much of a “yuck” factor for me.

  6. This is one from the list that sounded interesting so I ordered it. I must not have read the description very well as it was the 70s Chelsea setting and punk rock era that piqued my curiosity. I didn’t realize the incest angle until I received the book, opened it up and read the first sentence. I’m glad to hear, though, that despite the ick factor it is well done and not sensationalized. I’m very curious to read it now.

  7. Voula – you are welcome! Thank you, and I’d love to know what you make of it.

    David – I would love to know what you think of it. I completely agree that ‘intimacy’ is problematic in its definitions and experience. I used to teach a seminar on date rape, asking the students to see how an experience could be construed very differently, despite it being something supposedly clear, self-evident and private. I’m not sure I would have the same trust as your friend….but then these are decisions we can only take individually.

    Lilian – funny enough, that question did occur to me when I was reading it. I think it’s because the 1970s were the last age before psychoanalysis became more widespread and less stigmatised, and there was a general move towards understanding and even sometimes compassion with perverted behaviour. If the book had been set today, what happens to the main character in the aftermath would have been very different, I think. I’m trying to say this without spoilers so it probably sounds very mysterious!

    Jenny – yes, a few centuries would probably help. Although The Secret History is modern too… funnily enough I couldn’t finish that book because I found it such a queasy read. I guess it’s just one of those really personal responses that you can’t predict in advance.

    Mary – I’d love to know what you think of it. I would imagine you’d be interested in the portrayal of Susie’s state of mind and her background.

    Caroline – yes, this is a book I would think should fit well with your reading preferences. I was expecting to find it depressing, but somehow it does just about manage to avoid that (certainly in the first two-thirds). I’d love to know what you think of it.

    Harriet – I know what you mean about the Orange longlist! I’m interested in a few books on it this year, so we’ll see if I get around to them. I think you’d probably appreciate this one because it is very intelligently done.

    Stefanie – for a first novel, it’s amazing. Whatever will she do next! Perhaps Peile will confound us all by writing about something completely different. I sort of hope so. I like being confounded by good writers!

    Grad – well that’s fair enough. There are plenty of other books out there, after all!

    Danielle – yes, do not fear, it IS still worth reading. I found it surprisingly easy to read – and read it in three sessions. I’d love to know what you think of it when you get around to it.

  8. Loved the academics – a bit of oneupmanship is always in the offing. And I know exactly what you mean about a not-happy book that is still a fantastic read. Thanks for the review – the more I read other people’s responses to the longlist the more of the books I want to read!

  9. My students sometimes want to know why everything we read is so sad, and it always takes me by surprise. Why would you want to read happy books? It doesn’t occur to me!🙂 This book sounds really intense, and I’m wondering how I would respond to it. Your description makes me very curious.

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