Books: In brief

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The Independent Culture
SLEEPWALKING by Julie Myserson (Picador pounds 9.99) is the story of a young painter called Susan, whose detachment from life causes her to lapse into marriage - and regret it just too late to avoid becoming pregnant. She and her pernickety executive husband, Alistair, drift towards the birth of their child from the opposite poles of defeat and triumph, 'two irrevocably separate vessels, pulled along on the same slow current'. In the eighth month of the pregnancy Susan begins a passionate affair with another painter, Lenny, which convinces her that she wants out of her marriage.

Interspersed with this story are several others. Susan has begun to be visited by the ghost of an increasingly malevolent boy, in fact her own father, who committed suicide. In order to 'lay' this ghost (an unfortunate image, as the father has sexually abused his daughter), Susan has to come to terms with his past, which in turn spawns a story about her sadistic grandmother, Queenie.

Julie Myerson's first novel is much better than the sum of its novelettish parts, though the multiplicity of sub-plots is a weakness and the divide between the powerfully imagined detail of Susan's story and the concocted air of the Queenie bits is absolute. Myerson's analysis is acute and she ought to have resisted the temptation to add plot-fibre - in the form of the family history and the grandmother's 'period' setting - to a disturbing and beautifully written novella. The relationship between Susan and Alistair keeps clear of comedy or sentimentality without losing its bleakly humorous tone, as in this picture of Alistair: 'He was one of those men who deserved to have a wife - the sort of man who really did bring home flowers (anaemic, forced chrysanthemums, wrapped tightly in polythene, their stems dark and sloppy from having stood too long in water outside tube stations and delicatessens, but, all the same - flowers) for his wife.' She is particularly good at the undercurrents in married conversation, small details of gesture - such as what people do while talking on the phone - smells and sensuality. Her evocation of late pregnancy is uncomfortably vivid, her description of childbirth downbeat and unsentimental.

Sleepwalking is not a cheerful book, nor, because of the noisy chorus of family skeletons, an ultimately satisfying one, but the prose is concise and compelling and the central narrative has the virtues of a superior short story.