BOOK REVIEW / Hearts turned to stone: 'Marble Skin' - Slavenka Drakulc; trs Greg Mosse: Hutchinson, 13.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
KINGSLEY AMIS vowed never to read books in translation. Salman Rushdie, while judging Granta's Best Young Novelists, reached screaming point with novels about a girl's first menstruation. Neither would get very far with Marble Skin, translated via French from the original Croatian, in which a young girl leaves traces of her 'nauseating femininity' on the mattress.

Drakulc's second novel confronts the potent taboo of a mother's sexuality. It is 'told' by the daughter, now a sculptress in her thirties, who provokes her mother's attempted suicide with a marble sculpture she calls My Mother's Body. Returning home to care for her mother after an absence of 18 years, she remembers her 'unfinished childhood' and the crisis that drove them apart - the arrival of her mother's lover, who soon forced his way into the young girl's bed.

The novel itself is stripped bare - no names, no geography. Only the absence of a washing machine and the smell of glycerine on her mother's hands situate the text in Eastern Europe. In place of local colour we are given a heightened consciousness of the surface of things, a paramount sense of touch: the daughter's hands shaping the 'dark forms' of her sculptures, chiselling her mother's submissive sexuality from the cold marble; her stepfather's forbidden caresses that mould her into a woman; her mother's heavy hands washing away the girl's menstrual blood.

The sliding 'I' of the narration reveals Drakulc's mastery of technique. Locked into their 'parallel silences', the women's lives are refracted through endlessly repeating mirrors of memory and imagination. The effect is disorientating. At an open-air dance, the 'I' describes the scalding of the lover's urgent fingers - but whose nipples bear the imprint of his hand?

Both mother and daughter are obsessives, their relationship driven to extremes of tenderness and disgust. The mother repudiates her daughter when she reaches puberty; the daughter lacerates her mother's flouncy nightdress; each rummages through the other's drawers. The man who comes between them is little more than the orchestrator of the women's bodily desires, his paltry conquest of place signified by the mothballed clothes he leaves in their wardrobes.

The girl's complicity in her stepfather's advances is chillingly drawn. Only after actual penetration does she cry 'rape' to her mother, and then, perversely, to demonstrate her power: 'I know that between her experience of the body and mine there is an equals sign. I no longer have to imagine. I see her clearly in the man's arms, naked, in broad daylight.' The mother's response is equally hard: she sends her daughter away and turns her feelings to stone.

Hailed as 'the new woman's voice of Eastern Europe', Slavenka Drakulc is best known for her non-fiction, including the engaging How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed. This novel is much harder work. Yet, slowly, it starts to resonate, and you catch yourself wondering when you last saw your mother - and whether you could ever see her like this.