Mem­o­ries re­shap­ing our lives

PEL­MAN­ISM By Dilys Rose Luath Press, £12.99

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - BOOKS REVIEWS - Re­viewed by Chris Dolan

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.

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