Bit play­ers star in the spot­light

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Ni­amh Don­nelly

Sup­port­ing Cast By Kit de Waal

IPen­guin, 144pp, £8.99

n an in­ter­view in th­ese pages in 2016, Kit de Waal was asked if she “saw” her char­ac­ters in her mind’s eye. “Oh, God. To­tally,” she replied. “Ev­ery char­ac­ter in Leon has got a back story that I’ve writ­ten on my computer.”

She wasn’t ex­ag­ger­at­ing. Her lat­est book, Sup­port­ing Cast, is a col­lec­tion of sto­ries, or more ac­cu­rately char­ac­ter sketches, of pe­riph­eral char­ac­ters from her first two nov­els, My Name Is Leon and The Trick to Time.

Of the 22 char­ac­ters de­picted here, some are eas­ily recog­nis­able, oth­ers less so. We meet Leon’s ab­sent mother, Carol Ry­croft, and later his fa­ther, By­ron Francis. We also get an insight into what be­came of his brother, Jake. From The Trick to Time, three MacNaughto­ns – Wil­liam, Cor­nelia and Mar­garet – each make an ap­pear­ance, as does Karl, Mona’s Ger­man neigh­bour, and her friend, Gayle. Other char­ac­ters are harder to pin down, such as Edith Pais­ley-Jones, a woman who ap­pears for but a mo­ment in My Name Is Leon but whose in­ner psy­che is fleshed out in Sup­port­ing Cast.

In a way, this book’s very ex­is­tence feels like an apol­ogy to those char­ac­ters who, on first telling, seemed to mat­ter less. Ev­ery­one’s story mat­ters, this book sug­gests – a theme that res­onates loudly in the world of fic­tion, and per­haps the world at large.

There doesn’t seem to be a par­tic­u­lar logic to how th­ese tales are laid out. We jump around from Bris­tol 1981 to Cam­bridge 2011 to Ham­burg 2016. This gives things a scat­tered feel – it’s not always easy to find your bear­ings, and some sto­ries are so short or sub­tle they seem to brush past you on first read.

Read­ers fa­mil­iar with de Waal’s work will get more out of this book. Mr Devlin, for ex­am­ple, is por­trayed as a man car­ry­ing around some form of de­pres­sion: “He called it ‘the filth’ be­cause it was im­pos­si­ble to wash away.” It’s po­etic but ob­scure, but hav­ing met Mr Devlin in Leon, an­other di­men­sion is added to his melan­choly.

It’s a strange ex­er­cise, try­ing to make a book stand both alone and in tan­dem with an­other. One story in which this does work is Carol’s. We meet her in a B&B in Bris­tol. There is some­thing bub­bling in her un­sta­ble mind. “It was very strange what hap­pened then,” we are told. “It was like a very bad per­son put their hand on Carol’s shoul­der and whis­pered some­thing so hor­ri­ble and fright­en­ing that she wanted to die.” It’s a telling yet mys­te­ri­ous line, rem­i­nis­cent of some­thing El­iz­a­beth Bowen might plant in a story. Read­ers of Leon might recog­nise why this “hor­ri­ble” feel­ing haunts Carol, but even if not, we feel the quiet men­ace and are guided shrewdly to­wards the con­clu­sion.

For the most part, this book’s power lies in how it con­veys a happy-sad­ness. Each char­ac­ter por­trait is ren­dered like a da Vinci: sheer dark­ness play­ing off glow­ing light.

The story of Becky Finch or­gan­is­ing a hol­i­day with her work­mates is sliced through with the mem­ory of her mother – “we know you miss your mum, love, but it’s not like it’s a shock, was it?” We are told that her mother had been un­sta­ble for years, and that she once came at Becky “with a knife but she thought it was a hair­brush”. The story is slashed through the mid­dle with sad­ness, then pulled back again, to talk of beach bags and sun cream and do­ing Becky’s hair, as if the pain wasn’t sharp – as if the knife re­ally was a hair­brush.

I was most drawn to the story of Sylvia, who we meet af­ter her mar­riage has broken down. She de­scribes nights where her al­co­holic hus­band would stay out un­til six in the morn­ing: “First time it hap­pens, you think the worst. He’s dead. Robbed. Stabbed.” There’s a bit­ter­ness tinged with nos­tal­gia and love. “You loved him,” says her sis­ter, “and he loved you. And even if it’s not like that now, you have to re­mem­ber the sun­shine.”

From there the story be­comes an­other story. Sylvia re­mem­bers a time she and her hus­band were on hol­i­days and he tried to save a drown­ing boy. It is as if we are read­ing back­wards. We are hope­ful for a fu­ture we have al­ready seen. The ef­fect is quite stun­ning.

Although the book doesn’t quite have the pulling power of de Waal’s nov­els, it will suit the pa­tient, per­cep­tive reader who is will­ing to go back again and again – to tease out its con­trolled, telling sen­tences. It should be ob­vi­ous that there is more to th­ese char­ac­ters than can be seen at first glance.

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PHO­TO­GRAPH:

Con­trolled, telling sen­tences: Kit de Waal. JUSTIN DAVID

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