The first time I kissed my father on the mouth it was the Easter holiday. A chill clear spring afternoon, the trees still black twigs and a lemon glaze on the white cloud sky... Through the window I had been watching the dog from the Phene Arms, overweight as pub dogs tend to be, rummaging in a garden hedge. Sensing that I was so close to joy, even the heedless dog seemed a toy, a comedic charm staged expressly for my amusement. I watched it for a moment longer, and then I stepped forward and kissed my father on his lovely mouth.
In my Orange longlist preview post I said that Anne Peile's debut novel, Repeat It Today with Tears, sounded like the kind of book that I would learn to anticipate only after I'd started reading it. Meaning, I suppose, that it's not the a novel that I would seek out based on synopsis alone, but one that sells itself powerfully in the very early stages of the reading itself. Which is pretty much precisely my experience of it. It is a slim book, strangely sized. Slightly too tall for a mass-market paperback, slightly squat for a trade paperback. The font is large. It gives the visual and first impression of being slight. Which it isn't. Not at all.
It sets out to tell an apparently simple story, of a sixteen year old girl's single-minded pursuit of the man of her dreams. It is the early 1970s, and pre-Punk London is steeping in sexual revolution. Susie, the novel's precocious narrator, is being groomed along the road to a Classics scholarship at Oxford, no small achievement for a girl brough up without aspirations or encouragement. She and her older sister, Lin, have been indifferently raised by their single mother and her 'permanent man friend' Ron. Their flat just off Clapham Common is not a family home so much as a place they all live together in a state of drowsy truce. Susie's intelligence, and especially her gift for Latin, isn't nurtured, but she works hard at school nevertheless. Not because she is ambitious - far from it - but because 'it brought me praise and because there was nothing else in my life that I liked very much.'
Susie is desperate to be loved; more than that, she is desperate to be adored. She feels these intense emotions of love and adoration herself, for the mysterious father she has never known: Jack ap Rhys Owen. She makes it her life's work to learn about him, ever nook and inch of him. She uses the back of her school exercise books to 'compile a list of everything I knew about my father', and treats the one photograph she has of him as an object of devotion: ' When I was alone I used to take it out and hold it in front of me, staring so hard that I could vivify the image and believe that he lived and breathed for me. I felt that he understood me. I do not recall that there was a time when I looked upon my father's face with anything but adoration.'
Flicking through the phone book one day, looking for teachers to prank-call, she stumbles upon his telephone number, and realises that he - Jack ap Rhys Owen - is living just a short bus-ride away in Chelsea. With a terrifying determination she derails the course of her life in order to pursue her dream of him, working evening shifts in a cafe on the Kings Road and spending the weekends helping on the market stalls at the Great Gear Trading Company to be near to where he is. She spies on his house each day, and begins to frequent the bars and clubs in the vicinity, making friends amongst a set of fearfully dubious characters. She sees him from a distance, knows the car he drives and memorises his timetable; but they don't meet. Until, one ordinary afternoon she accompanies a friend for an innocuous drink in a run-down bar, and there he is. Next comes the kiss. And after that a whirlwind of bliss and lust so heady and tender and beautifully evoked that it is too easy to forget that its subjects are a teenage girl and her tragically oblivious 56 year old father.
Susie narrates the story of her incestuous relationship with her father in retrospect, from a position of hindsight, but she is very clear. She always knew what she was doing, right from the beginning, and that she does not regret it. It is something, she believes, that she was born to:
'I do not shock myself... I never have. You see, when my father had me in his embrace, arms and legs and hair all wound around, I used to cling on for dear life in my rapture, thinking only, 'This is what I was made for. This is why I was born.' And everything outside the act of possession was disengaged from me and my clasped love, as the rest of the fairground seems when the merry-go-round is turning.'
Later in her life, when the inevitable arc of her story has brought her crashing to earth, she spends a deal of time meditating upon a passage in St Paul's letter to the Philippians, from which the novel's title is taken: 'I have told you often, and I repeat it today with tears, there are many who are behaving as the enemies of Christ. They are destined to be lost.'
Destined to be lost. Susie believes there is something doomed inside of her; a cruel twist of fate that she should be destined to love only the man who was her father. She understands, of course, that incest is a Grade A sexual and social taboo. Undergoing an education in sensuality, during her early forays into Chelsea, she vaguely shares her discomfort with an older friend, Lalla:
She [Lalla] said, 'I will teach you everything you need to know about men. You can have anyone was you want, darling, anyone at all.'
'Even if it's wrong?'
'Wrong, what's wrong? There is no wrong, it's whether you want to or not, that's all that matters.'
Susie's London is awash with inappropriate lust; sex is no longer a sin but a right. Nothing is wrong, nothing is out of bounds. Everyone is testing and breaking taboos: sex with men, sex with women, sex in threes, in fours, sex with older men, sex with younger men, sex in public. The lines that demarcated 'wrongness' have been shifted, blurred and finally erased. Susie is told by Lalla, and by others, that she can do whatever she wants, with whoever she wants. Of course, she is too astute to believe that they would sanction her seduction of her own father. She can read between the lines: nothing is wrong, except the things that just are. Incest is Wrong. She knows it; she feels no remorse in commiting it anyway.
And not once but 'a hundred times, a hundred times a hundred times.' This is what is so powerfully compelling about Susie's character: her ability to lie to others, while being brutally honest with herself. Again, it is a role she understands herself to have been born to:
I suppose that I was a born liar. I did not want to lie, not to Jack. Sometimes, in the time when I was joined to him, I wanted to tell him the truth... Inside my head I might just have been repeating the diminutives of father over and over again. ... Because I loved him so much and he told me, often, how happy I made him and how lucky, I never saw what we did as wrong. But I did know that outsiders would fail to understand. In consequence, I knew that I must absolve him from all possible blame by never telling him the truth. I kept Dad and Daddy dumb, unheard inside me.
Anne Peile's writing draws you deep into the painful, testing wrongness of Susie's love, and of Jack's reciprocation, with a brazen eloquence. As Susie tells it, their affair reaches the Shakespearean heights of the greatest doomed love stories ever told. Their sex is gorgeously, disturbingly tender; their devotion, terrifying; Jack's disbelief, beautiful and sickening; Susie's love, so brutally sincere it could almost be innocent. All of it, of course, is from Susie's version of events, and told from a time in her life when memories have become refuges, but nevertheless, 'wrong' starts to seem like the poor choice of word for what they do.
What is it that is 'wrong' about their relationship? Surely there are far greater wrongnesses than the accident of paternity: the wrong of Susie's deceit, the wrong of Jack's adultery (because he does have a wife), the wrong of his willingness to be seduced by a girl forty years his junior with few questions asked. The novel breaks down probes and questions all these wrongs in a sharp-eyed, forensic sort of way. It seems to me that, by the final pages, the question it is most interested in is this: is there something wrong with Susie? Wrong, I mean, from the start. Is there a kernel of inevitable and pathological madness in her that estranges her from the world and all the norms of familial bonds? Clearly she thinks so, and the evidence of her narration suggests that only through contact with Jack does she truly become anything like a whole person. Her other life - the scholarship; the sharpness of her intelligence; the future she might have had - is nothing but a vague, drab backdrop to everything else.
As I finished the novel I realised that Susie reminded me of somebody. Not somebody 'real' - not to worry! - but another character, one from last year's Orange longlist: Patrick Oxtoby from This is How by MJ Hyland. Patrick, like Susie, does not have a 'normal' moral interpretation of the world; and M.J. Hyland, like Anne Peile, is fearless in asking what it is like to be a person who fits so poorly into the mould that family and society have made, and who in response commits a savage act, beyond comprehension, that leads to a new equilibrium. And, like Patrick, Susie is delivered by what she does 'wrong'; the 'wrongness' chimes clear and true for her:
If you think I must mind this existence then I promise you that you are quite mistaken. It was in the beginning that I minded my way of living because, try as I might, I never did belong. Only occasionally odd sections of printed pages caught and blew open the door in the wind and as it banged on its hinges I could see glimpses of beyond.
Both books, I think, deserved short-listing for the Orange Prize. Last week I predicted, hopefully, that Repeat It Today With Tears would be. Alas, not. But I think it should have been.