First- person angst
IT struck me, four parts into these five books by young British and North American authors, that if it is true that early writing has an element of autobiography, our new writers must be living in a milieu of casual drugtaking, drunkenness, profanity, mental illness and crime. So, by the time I read the fifth, Lauren Fox’s Still Life with Husband ( Vintage, 296pp, $ 26.35), its middle- class angst seemed almost other- worldly. It isn’t really. It meanders through the territory tackled by Lionel Shriver in The Post- Birthday World : betrayal and the consequences of choice. Fox’s narrator, Emily, a likable writer loaded with the disquiet of unrealised ambition and living with a husband whose vision of her is stultifyingly domestic, first vacillates and then steps firmly across that wavering line. A second theme emerges in that fashionable preoccupation of thirtysomethings: the motherhood dilemma. Still Life with Husband is charming in part, largely because of the success of Fox’s evocation of Emily. But because Emily eventually narrows her focus to her own survival, almost excluding the perspectives of her husband Kevin and lover David, the book doesn’t live up to its writer’s obvious talents.
That evocation of a narrator’s character is very important in first- person narrative, the chosen form of all four novels and half the short stories in Rachel Trezise’s Fresh Apples ( Text, 198pp, $ 22.95). Trezise manages those narratives adroitly, with fascinating voices and a refreshing lack of self- obsession. Previously much praised for her novel In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl , Trezise brings an acute eye and a fluid pen to all these stories, making the most unsympathetic characters and their most uncomfortable situations vitally interesting to the reader.
Less appealing is the narrator of Clare Allan’s Poppy Shakespeare ( Bloomsbury, 334pp, $ 22.95). Perceptually challenged and emotionally stunted, N is our guide as well as Poppy’s through the Dorothy Fish hospital in north London, where the day patients are dribblers, the residential patients are flops, and people out in the world, living a well- to- do life, are sniffs. N’s life has been appalling and her mental illnesses have long defined her existence. She has spent 13 years at the Dorothy Fish and, like the other patients, wants to stay. Poppy, on the other hand, doesn’t want to be there at all. The book’s title predisposes us to think her story is central but in fact Poppy simply provides the vehicle for N’s view of life, the hospital and the bizarre, labyrinthine regulations that govern the mental health bureaucracy. There’s a lot of tedium before we are engaged, by N or by the story. Allan does offer flashes of brilliant satire — middle- class Michael’s speech about the politics and economics of madness, for example — and there are occasional macabre witticisms that make one laugh out loud. But Poppy Shakespeare is not, as the cover gush suggests, in the league of Catch- 22 or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest .
Lost Girls and Love Hotels by Catherine Hanrahan ( Simon & Schuster, 208pp, $ 29.95) has a lovely cover and the blurb promises something interesting: a missing girl, whom the narrator, Margaret, a Canadian living in Japan, becomes convinced she has seen alive. Margaret’s job is teaching wannabe air stewards, a process of applying patterns of propriety to situations that threaten to get out of control. But nothing in Margaret’s life is under control. She has left a mess in Canada and her nights are spent in pursuit of oblivion or casual sex. She takes up with Kazu, an erudite gangster, meeting him in a series of hired rooms.
The ending of this novel, at once dramatic and poetic, would have had so much more impact had the tale that preceded it been more finely drawn. As it is, the sense one has constantly is of an intelligence never fully switched on and disappointment at the lack of development of the theme of the missing girl.
The most compelling narrator in this batch is Lily in Ray Robinson’s Electricity ( Picador, 334pp, $ 22.95). Feisty, self- sufficient, 30, she works in an arcade and has no contact with her family. Epilepsy courses electricity through her. At the start of the novel she gets the news that her mother is gravely ill. Her mother who threw her down the stairs. In the aftermath of her mother’s death, one of her brothers, Barry, finds her and Lily begins to grow hopes of belonging. In search of her other brother, Mikey, she goes to London. There she makes a friend, Mel, falls in love with Dave, rides the roller- coaster of medication and fitting and betrayal and despair. It sounds depressing but it’s not; Robinson makes Lily an indomitable spirit, a survivor who has honed a philosophy that is a challenge to us all: Thrash, get up, get on with it.’’