Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Monday, 7 January 2008

"a brief stay with the living" by Marie Darrieussecq (faber and faber, 2003)

"The most exciting French literary voice currently at work ... A thousand times more inventive than any British writer of her generation" (Irish Times). Maybe it's the French context that brings Michele Roberts to mind. The sections are in the voice (1st and 3rd person) of one of 4 related women. One section's by the Father (who's reading a book by Frank Kuppner - figures). Here's the start of an early section (Jeanne).

The sun's immense, as large in the yellow sky as the yellow esplanade beneath it. I must go to fetch that very, very important thing, down there, in the road with the same name as it had last time. We're all walking together, three or four of us, looking for a way out from the esplanade. Under the sun, the shadows are dipping in the same direction. It's all completely coherent. Short shadows, high sun. All's well, despite the strange layout of this place, as though suspended, enclosed by the air, it doesn't really matter.

This turns out to be half of a dream, but the non-dream sections often have stream-of-consciousness that share similar narrative leaps. When one of the women (Anne) thinks a stranger will be inviting her to become a spy she thinks

I won't have to plant bombs, I simply have to use the power in my mind or, rather, in thought to exploit my abilities for
    1) openness
    2) concentration
to slip into the shell of the world like a hermit crab, or rather, given that space isn't empty, to slip over from consciousness to another, like an egret ridding a hippopotamus of its parasites

The text includes other numbered lists as well as eye-test charts, horoscopes, adverts, and the odd drawing. Later Anne thinks "They didn't recruit me for no reason, I alter my daily round, from the lab to the library, with a rational disturbance of my schedule; a probabilistic modelization, Brownian motion applied to my habits ... each life is locked in a pathway marked out by a string of routines, like a fugue". Interesting, but as you can see, this isn't an attempt at hyper-realism à la Ulysses. Tangents are following without warning - for example when Anne talks about her mother's habit of singing to herself she says "that tweeting never stops, Faraday's cage of parrots when lightning strikes around them, a moment's surprise, then off they go again".

After a while I decided that they were all loonies, and I yearned for a change of pace or some narrative tension. There is a mystery (or 2) that's gradually revealed, but for me the middle of the book sags. The author can do more conventional prose - "it's like Clint Eastwood, he gives her a questioning stare, the actor with two expressions - with or without a hat. She laughs alone, he hasn't got it, she was referring to the cat, the reflection of the [animated neon sign] cat in the water".

Leitmotifs return - hippopotamus/rhinocerous and egrets; things that come in threes (Goldilocks, blind mice, etc); hermit crabs; honeysuckle. There's some synchronisation of threads - phone calls, and simultaneous memories of the same events from different viewpoints, for example, and Anne tells Iris about Jeane at a critical moment for Jeanne.

Once I'd finished I returned to the start and found it more interesting than before. I think I'm just out of practise reading this kind of writing.

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