Books Fiction In Brief: Commencing Our Descent

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The Independent Culture
Commencing Our Descent

by Suzannah Dunn

Flamingo pounds 15.99

Much has been said of Dunn's gift for precision, the gradual relaying of the minutiae of our daily lives. What is often missed out in this general admiration is just how surprisingly tantalising this kind of writing can often be. It may appear as if everything you need to know is just there for the taking, but a wealth of detail doesn't necessarily mean a wealth of information. Reading Dunn's work becomes an irresistible game of offering explanations and developing theories. It's a testament to her writing that this kind of reader participation happens almost without you noticing it.

Her latest novel, an almost diary-like account of an unconsummated love affair, displays many familiar features of her work - a concern, bordering on obsession here, with language which focuses not just on etymology but also on sound, inference, grammar; a personal, introspective point of view; a worrying-out of emotional detail. Sadie Summerfield, a delicate redhead in her early 30s, is married to Philip, an understanding, gentle man. Sadie is recovering from her close friend being injured in a car crash and becoming dependent on Sadie for the last years of her life. There is an unfailing sense of Dunn's protagonist in freefall - partly due to the flight imagery which runs throughout the book - as the relationships surrounding her seem to do little else but emphasise her passivity and lack of control.

It is at this point, struggling to get some meaning back into her life after spending a recent part of it focusing so much on someone else, that Sadie meets Edwin, an unlikely amour, as husband Philip points out, "a thirty-nine-year-old balding academic". They begin a relationship which develops emotionally rather than physically, but troubling enough for them to feel the need to hide it from their respective partners. Nothing much actually happens in Dunn's work, all the important events take place beneath the surface, as Sadie spends most of her time holding imaginary conversations or refusing to articulate her real feelings. Writing about love and avoiding cliches isn't easy, but Dunn does something interesting with it. Speculating on the loss of her feelings for Philip, Sadie muses, "Loving him now is like singing a song to which I have forgotten the words. I am humming, and hoping". Often bordering on cliche, Dunn suddenly pulls back from it and does something quite different, so the seemingly familiar becomes quite new.

The extensive focus on so much internal wrangling that Sadie undergoes might not be to everyone's taste, and the result of excessive detail can be an overwhelming sense of control which makes you long for Sadie just to let it all go for once. But it also means there is a psychological truth to Dunn's writing that never becomes self-indulgent or overblown, a welcome thing these days when the cult of the personal is so prevalent.

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