BOOK REVIEW / Quack quack: Affliction - Fay Weldon: HarperCollins, pounds 12.99

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The Independent Culture
SPICER, a happy-go-lucky wine merchant, sends away the gipsy woman at his door who wants to tell his fortune - 'Superstitious nonsense]' he says. He would rather make love to the young and beautiful Annette. It is perfectly clear, he tells Annette, that they will marry and live happily ever after: he has a small son, Jason, she a small daughter, Susan. All they need is a child themselves: 'One for me, one for you, one for us'. That should be the end of a story, not the beginning, but 10 years later, when Annette is pregnant at last, something goes drastically wrong. Spicer begins to change.

Affliction can be both active and passive, something you inflict, or something you suffer, a deep, unacknowledged wound. The overt targets of Fay Weldon's novel are the malign forces of astrology, hypnotism, New Age fads and therapy which suck Spicer into their orbit. But she implies a deeper danger still, the compulsion to talk out our lives, whether on the analyst's couch or the office ansafone.

A long-time phone-addict, Annette has become used to 'understanding my own life through my ears . . . it may well have to do with overhearing the rows between my mother and father as a child: listening through doors, working out patterns'. Not surprisingly Annette's patterns become a book, Lucifette Fallen, which we never get to 'read' but are told is an over-controlled rendering both of her childhood and of the great archetypal rebellion, a woman fiend this time, defying the great patriarchal god.

An old Weldon theme, that of the she-devil, the poltergeist, the whirling energy of the desperate and deprived. But in this novel (as elsewhere today) women are fighting the backlash. Once Annette is not only pregnant but also a budding author, about to broadcast their lives to the world on the Oprah Winfrey show, Spicer's response is to turn and destroy.

His therapist Rhea (named wife of Saturn), abetted by her hairy-nosed, breast-pawing husband, provides Spicer with the tools of revenge, a battery of jargon and archetypes displaying woman as the smothering, suffocating force: a jealous Hera, a malign Lilith, Kali, Medusa, Delilah. Not surprisingly, to regain his power, Spicer must reduce Annette to silence: his first move is refusing to let her talk during sex. In contrast, his own language becomes wildly opaque: 'sextile my moon but also, alas, quincunx your sun'. Increasingly dumbfounded but also queasily guilty, Annette takes to the phone, to her mother and, most of all, to her friend Gilda (a red-haired Rita Hayworth figure, but a giver of life, not the femme fatale whose name decorated the atomic bomb).

Told almost completely in dialogue, Affliction works like a slow-burning fuse, gaining a horribly mad plausibility. A dry, ritualised formality underpins the linguistic profusion; dry comedy comes from minor characters like the tarot-card reading secretary Marion, and a glum, sane commentary is offered by the sharp-eyed children. Revelations seep out, tensions build, disasters loom. Sense becomes nonsense: the stars turn in their courses.

The weak links, unfortunately, are the therapists themselves, clothed in so much distaste that they collapse into caricature: their quackery fatally trivialises Weldon's assault on the disturbing topic of child abuse and the over-laying of memory during therapy. Also, for all her bitter swipes at Maresfield Gardens, Weldon is too honest a writer not to acknowledge, as Annette eventually must, that the real blame lies with her beloved husband: 'For mad, read nasty piece of work', as Gilda's Steve says.

Strong, independent women do rouse storms of mystifying words, but this clever, forceful novel asks us to cut through the jargon, climb out of the pit, and see female creativity as strength, not affliction. The real power lies, as it always has in Weldon's abrasive fiction, with the female friends - Down Among the Women.

(Photograph omitted)

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