Breaking Light by Karin Altenberg
Quercus, July 2014
Hardback, 384 pages
* Review copy kindly provided by the publisher.
Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey
Jonathan Cape, September 2014
Ebook, 272 pages
* Review copy kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley
I read Dear Thief and Breaking Light in parallel, and what a strange pairing they proved to be. Neither was an unequivocally positive reading experience for me, but one was so much cleverer, bolder and more beautiful than the other that the comparison was stark.
I originally turned the offer of a copy of Breaking Light down, because I got on so poorly with Altenberg's first book Island of Wings when it was longlisted for the Bailey's Prize in 2012. But on re-reading the synopsis I changed my mind. This book is a world away from 19th century St. Kilda and it seemed only fair to give it a go. Gabriel Askew has retired to Mortford, his childhood home on Exmoor. Bullied mercilessly for his harelip at school in the 1950s and raised in the shadow of some barely understood family scandal, he has lived a life of isolation and quiet renown as a scholar of the history of disability. He lives abstemiously and dustily in his too-big house nursing painful memories, only connecting briefly with the Afghani widow who works the allotment next to his. The architecture of his days is built to ensure that thoughts of a long-lost best friend and the betrayal that tore them apart are kept as much at bay as possible.
At first it seemed that I had made a good call in giving Altenberg's second novel a chance. I was struck by the powerful descriptions of Dartmoor and some acute observational writing: a damp pub carpet is 'sludgy', two ravens 'too high to cast a shadow ...were soaring carousing in a courting game, their wedge-tails stencilling cuneiform on to the spring skies', specimen foetuses at the Royal College of Surgeons are ' a still life of five siblings, two hundred years old and floating blindly in their shared aquariam. Their tiny bodies gently bent as they slotted into each other - head to foot, back to front - like an imprint of the way they had lain together, nesting.' I also quite liked Gabriel's studied reticence, the way Altenberg unpicked his deep seated physical embarrassment at being in the world, and by page 50 was beginning to warm to him.
The more I read, however, the less I admired. There were some instances of truly awful stagey dialogue, first between Gabriel and his nosey housekeeper Doris Ludgate, and then with his love interest Mrs Sarobi. It was curt, scripted and seemed fundamentally untrue to the situations of frustration or nervousness portrayed. The honesty in Altenberg's descriptive writing was missing from any moment of connection between people. There were other awkwardnesses too. The segues between Gabriel's present and his memories were often cliched and forced, the BBC fade-in transition of the 1990s. Visiting a graveyard he remembers his best friend's father's funeral: 'It was Mr Bradley's funeral that had suddenly surfaced in his mind. 'Why now?' he asked himself grumpily. Things had been so different after that. Since leaving, all along, to put that world behind him is life had been an endless odyssey - until now. It was a rainy day in October, he remembered, as he sat down to rest on a low wall that surrounded the churchyard. 'No I'm wrong, quite wrong,' he muttered aloud. 'It was a sunny day...' he grimaced in concentration. 'I must at least try to get it right.' And when Altenberg strayed from describing things to describing people the result could be cringeworthy, as with the 'subteranean rivers of despair [that] flowed under Uncle Gerry's grey stubble.' I forced myself to read 180 pages, until the odd flash of brilliance wasn't enough to sustain me any longer and I had to admit defeat.
Books about memory and the veracity of memory seem to be a bit of a theme for me this year (see also The Girl on the Train and Elizabeth is Missing) and Dear Thief continues the trend. It's Samantha Harvey's third novel, and the second I've read (The Wilderness being her debut), inspired this time by its longlisting for the Bailey's Prize. The book was also recently the subject of an interesting article in the Telegraph about why well reviewed novels are sometimes ignored. Personally I think in this case it may have more than a little to do with the lacklustre UK cover, coupled with the 'difficulty' of the text itself, which is luminous and beguiling but also dense, languid and wilfully tricksy.
The premise is simple: an unnamed woman - divorced, in her 50s, living alone in London - sits down to write a letter to her friend Nina whom she hasn't seen or heard from in 17 years. The novel we read is the letter itself, written in brief urgent sections throughout 2002. Nina, or 'Butterfly' as she is dubbed by the narrator's infant son, was a childhood friend in the remote Welsh countryside, an ally and a confidante. Always the more daring, more determinely alive of the pair Nina flitted in and out of her friends' life, appearing and disappearing without warning. In the early 1980s she lived with the narrator and her husband Nicholas for almost two years, rocking up one night and simply staying on, tolerated in spite of her growing drug addiction because of the spark she brings to an otherwise mundane existence. It finally ends when Nina and Nicholas embark on an affair and are discovered by the narrator, precipitating Nina's final disappearance from their lives. The narrator has no idea what happened to Nina after that: where she is, whether she is alive, whether she has a family of her own. The letter she is writing will almost certainly never be sent or read by its intended recipient.
The simplicity of the synopsis is fundamentally misleading, as is very clear from the first intense and glorious section in which the narrator addresses a question Nina put to her almost two decades earlier: Have you seen through the gauze of this life? In answer she tells a powerful story of her grandmother's death, coincidentally on the night that she first met Nicholas on the banks of the Thames. The writing is exquisite and harmonious sentence to sentence and the narrative is rubbed neat and smooth. The answer to Nina's question is the complete package - prose, theme, foreshadowing. It is the sort of sculpted perfection that rings alarm bells beautifully. We know that we are in the hands of a consummate storyteller, a woman who has thought long and deeply about how she wants to be seen, understood, interpreted in this letter. Truth is not necessarily part of her modus operandi. Later she opines, playfully: 'When there are so many true things that can be said in life, I don't know why I say things that aren't.' As the letter unfolds, providing us with clues as to both the narrator's past and present life, we don't know what to believe or to dismiss, what to read as significant. One minute she prosaically describes a moment from her life as a care assistant, and the next speculates gradiosely on Nina's whereabouts and way of life, building her a hut in a Lithuanian forest populated it with things gleaned from fantasy and her memory.
The letter, the novel, thus positions itself as many things for the reader. Yes, as a story, but it is also a game wherein we are presented with snippets, glimpses, symbols, visions, allegorical tales to shuffle, interpret and engage with as they like. It is like an excavation, but in memory and prose rather than mud, which asks us to reconstruct meanings from prose fragments and decontextualised artefacts. Reading it demands time and mental energy and the will to participate in the creative process. Which is where I come back to this not being an unequivocally positive reading experience for me. It seems pretty obvious that Dear Thief is a great novel by a writer with significant powers, so it is entirely down to me as a reader that I found the book easy to admire and hard to love, at least on first impressions. Hard to love because in questioning the premise of narrative voice and truth it holds you at arms length, and didn't permit (for me, personally) a moment of simple connection between the reader and the read-about. I wanted to analyse it rather than simply read it; I wanted to attend a seminar and write an essay about it. It's that kind of book. Still, I very much hope it is on the Bailey's Prize shortlist and I know which I would rather read any day.