The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life
Memories reshaping our lives
PELMANISM By Dilys Rose Luath Press, £12.99
PELMANISM, the novel itself tells us, is a memory-testing card game. It’s also – if Wikipedia is to be trusted – a memory and mindtraining system popular in the early 1900s. Dilys Rose’s new novel is all about memory: how unreliable it is, its palimpsest quality, particular memories changing each time you bring them to mind; how retention is unaccountably absent at crucial times in our lives. It’s about the way the past, or our recollection of it, can in unexpected ways shape, or at least colour, how we see the present and interpret our lives. That makes it sound worthy, but even if it is it’s a sparkling piece of absorbing modern fiction.
The novel begins and ends with Gala Price returning to Scotland to visit her father who has fallen ill. Arriving home triggers an avalanche of reminiscence – virtually none of it good. Strap-happy uninspiring teachers, scruffy semi-feral family pets, near-death experiences in swimming pools and beaches. These memories swirl around Gala, dragging her relentlessly down. They do not come in any particular order: a cringing late-teen recollection is followed by a half-remembered incident from early childhood. Recent, awkward visits from parents rub up against stories her gran used to tell her. Some memories may be false, or edited and changed over the years. Some decisive and deeply felt events have upsettingly left no trace whatsoever: her gran’s funeral, for example.
Rose is far too fine and experienced a writer just to throw incidents randomly at
the reader. The further you venture into her novel the more you realise just how highly structured Pelmanism is. If Gala’s remembering is haphazard, her story and her world grow holistically so that we gradually get to know and understand her and her deeply dysfunctional family.
And what a ghastly family it is. Miles, the father, is a study in self-pity, self-obsession and petty cruelty. His sense of middle-class colonial entitlement is forever being offended by the modern world – he is the very model of a certain kind of UKIP voter. Vera is his stoic long-suffering wife, though we feel little empathy for her, so prim, lifeless and resentful is she.
ROSE has created in the Prices a monstrous tragicomedy; she pulls off the difficult trick of making the reader laugh and recoil simultaneously.
We all know this family: if we are honest there are traces of Miles and Vera in all our families. Provincial, meanspirited, self-defeating, Mr and Mrs Price are the descendants of George Douglas Brown’s gossiping back-biting “bodies” in The House With The Green Shutters. Rose’s writing can be every bit as acerbic and ridiculing as Brown’s: she has Miles say to Vera, for example, “you should be more erotic and less neurotic. That’s what you should do.” On a trip to Paris Vera is “more interested in inspecting the lavatories than in seeing the sights”.
Darkly comic creations as they are, Gala’s parents still tug at our hearts and demand our compassion, partly because they are fully imagined and alive on the page. They feel so real that I wondered if this novel is halfmemoir. I hope not, for the author’s sake, but in the end it doesn’t matter – it is the pitchperfect creation that is so compelling here.
Bitter and twisted as Miles is, we still feel for him in the way we sympathise with Willie Loman or even Lear. (Rose’s book likes to play literary games with you – secondguessing your reactions then incorporating them into the narrative.)
I was surprised to discover that this is only Rose’s second novel. Perhaps because she has given us so many intense short stories we feel she has written more, and longer, narratives.
Indeed Pelmanism is beautifully written – concise, insightful, dark and funny – and also lyrical. Much more than that, it is a story superbly told, winding its way cleverly towards its revelations. Firstclass contemporary Scottish writing, within a tradition. Intelligent, entertaining and astute.