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     Volume 5 Issue 84 | March 3, 2006 |

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Book Review

If only she had told it like it was

Rachel Cooke

Harriet Vyner has one of those backgrounds (posh and degenerate) that girls like me (neither posh nor degenerate) love to read about. She grew up at Fountains Abbey, the Yorkshire estate that includes Studley Royal, and was raised mostly by a nanny. When she was eight, her father had to sell up to the National Trust to pay off a gambling debt. At school, she began taking drugs, possibly as a way of coping with a sexual assault she suffered at the hands of a stranger at the age of nine.

After moving to London, where she lived on a trust fund, she had an affair with Lucian Freud. She was 18; he was approaching 50. At 23, she was a heroin addict, though she cleaned up while on remand, having been charged with dealing the drug, for which she served a 30-month (reduced to 10 on parole) sentence. Finally, she became a writer. Her first book was Groovy Bob, a biography of Robert Fraser, the 1960s art dealer.

Her debut novel is, as Vyner admitted in a recent interview, a roman a clef-fictional in its detail, but autobiographical in its pathetic trajectory. A girl, Laura, grows up by a ruined abbey in Northumberland; she is sexually assaulted by a man she finds collecting shells on the beach; she tells no one. Later, her father, a gambler, sells his grand house, a move that both liberates and diminishes him (with fatal results for his marriage), and his daughter struggles to fit in at a state school.

Quietly, but with a certain gusto, she takes up drugs. On a school trip, she sees a painting by Christopher Kovel, a man of European background who loiters at the fringes of her parents' social set. She writes to him and they become desultory lovers. The affair only peters out once Laura is in prison and Kovel marries his long-term mistress.

Among Ruins
Harriet Vyner

In outline, then, Among Ruins is a delicious prospect. So why, on the page, is it so oddly flat, coy and cauterised by turns? It is not entirely Vyner's fault. Her book seems barely to have been edited. I cannot remember the last time I read a novel so full of bad grammar - 'once they were sat at their table' - or of sentences containing the same word twice, or more, to no obvious poetic effect. Commas are used at random, when a colon or full stop would do far better, while nothing has been done to check Vyner's passion for adjectives and adverbs. The result: prose so clause-heavy and so clogged with redundant, clever-sounding words that some sentences must be read several times before they can be understood.

But there is another problem. Somewhere along the way, Vyner took the decision to write a novel rather than a memoir. Perhaps this was because she imagines the novelist's art to be more writerly than that of the memoirist; or perhaps she wanted to protect those at the centre of the narrative. Whatever the reason, at this point, a gauze came down between her experiences, which sound both amazing and visceral, and her style. It is as if, in conjuring fiction, she thought that details, the bare facts, did not matter. Such an attitude is acceptable if you are an experienced writer, one deft enough to make your gaps sound as loudly as the words that hum around them. But if your style is nascent, a dreamlike, pared-down quality is hard to pull off. The result, especially when you are dealing with plot, will be pedestrian or, worse, just plain confusing.

While Vyner has a nice line in similes - a pair of library curtains falls 'voluptuously, like the dresses of saints' - and the demure opacity of her father-daughter dialogues undoubtedly rings true, her narrative stands as a useful corrective to those who complain that too many people now write memoirs when they should be writing novels. 'Write about what you know,' young novelists are told, advice that, unfortunately, does not preclude the desperate prissiness of most wannabe art.

A bad memoir is easier to bear than a bad novel because, like Ronseal, it does what it says on the tin; if nothing else, it at least strives for a certain actuality (even if that actuality turns out to be embellished). A roman a clef, on the other hand, travels in disguise and, in this case, it's a disguise you want to rip right off, because what lies beneath is almost certainly more interesting.


Source: Guardian Unlimited Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006



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