Books: Life beyond the Graveses

THE TELLING by Miranda Seymour John Murray pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
AMEMOIR appears to offer the reader the truth about the personal past, until you realise that it comes shaped by the pressures on story, those impulses of wish, anger and sorrow that give the form, each time, a distinguished and original shape, like shoe leather moulded by its owner's feet. Memoirs have the charm of arousing the voyeur in us. At the same time we can be pleased by the invitation to relax into the armchair delights of form: let me tell you a story.

Miranda Seymour's new novel The Telling apes the form of memoir, in order subsequently to disclose that the particularly gruesome episodes she recounts actually have their roots in fact. Casting her tale as a novel lets her use her imagination to empathise with Nancy Brewster, the heroine- victim in the case. Listening to her story, as she writes it down for her grandchildren for whose understanding she yearns, the reader watches Nancy both make up her version of her life and simultaneously put herself back together again by piecing together the subjecthood which was torn from her and shredded.

In fact, Miranda Seymour has treated this story before, in her excellent biography of Robert Graves, who got tangled up, at a certain crucial moment in his career, with the poet-prophet Laura Riding, with far-reaching and damaging effects. The curious reader can consult both that account and Seymour's brief note on it in her postscript to this novel.

The difference, here, is that we swivel our gaze aside from the charismatic male poet and his Medea-like inamorata, to their hapless victim, as the fictionalised Nancy plays her part full stage. This is her life, after all, and this time around she is allowed to function at its centre. Her tragedy is to be wobbled off-course by others. First, by her mother, whose cold indifference, amounting to cruelty and neglect, leaves her daughter crucially vulnerable, and secondly, by her selfish and inadequate father, who's able to abuse his unprotected child safe in the knowledge that no one will believe her if she tells. The life of these rich people in Boston early this century sounds sad and grim. No wonder Nancy flees, as soon as she can, to New York City, where she camps out with her socialite cousin, falls in love, and escapes into marriage with her true love, a bohemian and impoverished would-be poet-publisher, Chance Brewster. Life in the New Jersey countryside seems to bring Nancy the stability that has so far been denied her, until Isabel March arrives from Europe with the mission of saving the world and ruining Nancy's life in the process. Not only does Isabel nudge Nancy's children out of the way, take her place at table and steal her husband's love, she also pushes Nancy over the edge into a terrible deed.

The novel is neither melodramatic nor sentimental. All the characters are convincingly fleshed out, though Isabel necessarily remains enigmatic. Nancy is drawn sympathetically, but not patronisingly. The narrative races along towards its shocking denouement, affording all the pleasures of a good thriller. Best of all, the novel is beautifully written, capturing physical experience in a wry poetry that is all Nancy's own. You don't need to read the biographical background to enjoy this as a compelling work of art.