the big mask
Davies enjoys Susie Boyt's compulsive and compassionate tale
of loss, Only Human
compulsively readable novel about mourning, Susie Boyt has
brought an attentive observation gleaned from her work as
a bereavement counsellor, linked with humour and an artist's
compassionate sensibility. Boyt, daughter of Lucian, great-granddaughter
of Sigmund, is a Freud without being a systematic freudian.
Only Human is a sustained act of humane understanding.
by Susie Boyt
243pp, Review, £16.99
a marriage guidance counsellor, lost her husband 17 years
ago after a bare two-and-a-half years of marriage which left
her with a treasured baby, May, on whom she has thrown the
weight of her own need. Sane and authoritative as she appears,
Marjorie is secretly unhinged. The power of Boyt's remarkable
novel lies in its discovery of a language capable of rendering
a psyche utterly at a loss, behind the brittle screen of a
public demeanour. I was reminded of George Eliot's observation
in Middlemarch that "behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet,
there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual
and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control".
For Marjorie's is an ordinary derangement. We have all been
there, or somewhere nearby.
in which Marjorie counsels her dysfunctional clients are sheer
theatre. The novel's structure works in a rhythm of scenes
in which couples perform the banal and bizarre dramas that
display human nature at its most mad (and normal): he "said
I looked like a rat's abortion", complains one wife.
The husband deplores her failure to grasp his sense of humour.
In another couple, the performative nature of the family dynamic
takes the form of 10 minutes' hysterical sobbing in a "sadness...
so deep and high and sheer that Marjorie found herself regarding
it with the highest admiration".
turns out, Marjorie is a lousy counsellor. Her investment
in keeping couples together is a displacement of her own compulsion
to clasp the dead Hugh, to hold herself together and not to
notice how bereft she is. As Marjorie falls apart, so does
her ability to continue her "lively servicing of... old
wounds". Beautiful writing blends with inventive plot
conceits, the most poignant of which is Marjorie's accidental
detection under the bed of a 17-year-old Christmas stocking,
packed with faded parcels: Hugh's present, as she thinks,
to herself. She shoves it back under the bed. At the end of
the novel, it is passed by mother to daughter, who begins
to unpack the gifts, her inheritance of her father's love.
Stevie Davies's latest book, Kith and Kin, is published by
Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
(R) thedailystar.net 2004