BOOKS FICTION: A case of kill or cure

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The Independent Culture
THE TOUCH by Julie Myerson, Picador pounds 12.99

Julie Myerson's first novel, Sleepwalking, cracked a taboo. It was a close-up study of a young woman having an affair with a man who was not the father of the child she was carrying. It was a frightening book and it felt real. It was hard to see what she would do next.

The Touch is a remarkable response to any such speculation. It is an assured and compassionate book. In many young writers assurance rules out compassion and compassion loosens the artistic seams, but in this book Myerson establishes a certainty of tone that is both eccentric and unaffected.

Appalling Frank Chapman, faith healer and busybody, crashing bore and incubus, lies battered on the ground. He is not, though, a victim, but the seeker of prey, or, more precisely, seeker of one over whom to pray. Poor Donna, nearly crippled by back pain, approaches, followed by her doting but desperately worried lover, Will, and her businesslike sister Gayle plus her lust-child Kitty. Before long, and very unwillingly, the "family" has been induced to allow Frank to try to heal Donna. He does.

The effect of sudden - irrationally presented - good health upon the tight and morbidly balanced little circle is irreversible and shattering. Myerson's chosen subjects here are illness and power; later, with commendably disciplined and excitingly conveyed force, suppressed love comes to join them. As she did in her first book, Julie Myerson writes uninhibitedly about physical love, translating something of its accidences and alarms. To do so this well is not easy.

The surroundings of the drama of these knotted lives range between an identifiable contingent London of flats and offices and hospital, whose tactile reality is surely conveyed. There is a good deal of apparently casual observation, combining imagery with menace and wit. Here is Myerson's description of the awful Frank at his proselytising:

One day, a blackie with a horrifically deformed face like a cauliflower walks by. Hard to tell if male or female, the face is so swollen and turned in on itself. He can hardly bear to look. "I don't know what happened to your face, miss," he says, "but Jesus can put it right for you just like that -" He snaps his fingers where he imagines her eyes must be.

She comes right up close, so he can smell the garlic breeze coming from between her lips. "It's Mrs," she says, "and you can just fuck off back to where you came from and mind your own business, old man," and she disappears into the Lambeth Building Society.

"The Lord offers His healing powers for nothing, madam," he calls after her, "more than you can say for the building society."

Perhaps the best location of all is the seaside house where the book's crisis breaks. I was reminded here of Eva Trout, the most difficult and gnarled of Elizabeth Bowen's books. Myerson, though she has a grit and slant that are all her own, has something like Bowen's knack of focusing on objects in a way that is photographic yet transforming.

"Eleven thirty. The light outside was hot and glittery. Next door's magnolia was in bloom, pushing over the fence like a massive and subdued candelabra."

Lunacy is hard to write. Beneath it one can often detect the assumed norm in reaction to which it has been fabricated. In this book Julie Myerson displays real artistic confidence in writing about it with open eyes, allowing fear and disgust their place with indulgence and comprehension. This thoughtful novel has an appealing thinness of skin, leaving one attuned to its ways of feeling and beginning to miss its protagonists as one approaches its end.