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.