BOOK REVIEW / Helle is being part of a love triangle: The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf - Kathryn Davis: Hamish Hamilton pounds 9.99

IN THIS novel an ageing composer falls in love with a young woman who in turn falls in love with a young man, which produces a neat triangle. While that is a traditional pattern, with almost every sentence this book seems to be struggling with new takes on new emotions. Sometimes you come to them with a shock of delighted recognition; sometimes you're left alienated. But what gives it its main twist is a feminist spin on the old triangle: this composer is a woman, a fey Danish lesbian called Helle Ten Brix. And the novel is told from the point of view of her young beloved, Francie Thorn.

Unlike most muses, Francie Thorn is supremely lovable. A casual, unselfconscious eccentric, she swishes through life: 'Why burn the leaves,' she thinks idly in autumn, 'what good would it do? Why shave your legs or wash a dish?' She has two daughters; rather than bringing them up, she observes their growing up. And she observes herself with the same unjudging eye. Alighting dispassionately on the effects of passion, when she first meets her lover, Sam, she notes: 'Although I continued to face Helle, it was as if my own womb had inside it a tiny compass, its needle indicating correct orientation: the pole's tug was to my left, where Sam now stood.'

In this generation of women writers, love is often shortchanged. Few can counterbalance their intellectual weight with dreams, or their romantic tics with realism. But Davis writes of a love between equals that still has tragic modulations. This is the real thing, caught in a language that hovers enticingly between the laconic and the poetic.

Francie Thorn's heterosexuality is at odds with her other lover's lesbianism, and her American nonchalance is set in contrast with the weight of Helle's European past. Helle's Europe is mythical in an unexpected way - no gay Paree or sunny Rome, but the dark northern temper of Hans Christian Andersen, Coppelia and 12th-century castles. While Francie's America is brittle and bright, a country of azure diners and dusty pink birthday cakes. But despite the outright difference of their backgrounds, we come to believe that as women Francie and Helle come from the same world.

The book's strange title is the name of an Andersen fable in which a young rich girl treads on a loaf of bread to save her shoes from being spoilt by ooze in a bog, and then descends to the realm of the Bog Queen. That realm - marshy, dark, all- female - is Helle's natural habitat, and in her opera of the fable the bog takes over the stage. Dark, damp, underground images also come to dominate Francie's life. We hear a great deal about the drops of water that cling to the undersides of leaves, the dampness of the bedding in cheap lodgings, sheets of drizzle and curtains of mist.

That metaphorical density implies the depth of this female love. Given that the novel opens after Helle's death, with Francie looking back over her life and work, it amounts to an emotional haunting. Even though, as we finally learn, Helle has destroyed Francie's only real chance of happiness, that hardly affects their unique sisterhood, which always forced Sam to take a peripheral role: 'In fact, the image I was coming back to over and over again - Francie Thorn wading among dark wet rocks, plucking from nests of seaweed the iridescent mussels she would later coax open over a fire, revealing to her two little girls the secret of the meat hidden within each shell . . . didn't include Sam at all.'

These neat triangles and heavily symbolic images work because Davis has learnt to use metaphor in an attractive Nabokovian way, both flamboyantly upfront and much too mysteriously personal to be ironed out by the eye of the critic. The treatment of Helle's musical oeuvre proves this sophistication. Partly a source of feminist allegories, it is also a cornucopia of random and unexpected imaginative riches; when Helle writes an opera of Woolf's The Waves we hear that she creates parodies of six musical styles for the six separate voices, a Debussyish style for Bernard, Bach for Susan, Mozart for Rhoda's tuneful style: 'I hear a sound, cheep, chirp, cheep, chirp, going up and down.' Although the opera is unimaginable, it is a fine, intelligent conceit.

So Davis gains our emotional and intellectual trust. And when the novel's denouement arrives, with its shots in the night and unexpected deaths in a sudden, symbolic downpour, we can appreciate the moment in many ways - as plot, like the mad devastations at the ends of operas that leave one cathartically satisfied; as allegory, balancing out the triangle we always knew was highly symbolic; and as real life, in which we weep for Francie.

The thick layers of this novel only become transparent once you have reached the end and tripped over the tragedy. But re-read it, and you are struck by the piquant harmonies all the parts make. For once, this is a novel with secrets, one that repays work, and its prose is exquisitely rhythmic and open-ended. Take the resonant last sentence, after Francie finally frees herself of the dragging weight of both Helle and Sam, and meets a naughty little girl who is teasing a small boy. 'Really, I said, sibylline, magnificent in my red winter coat, you should be nicer to him, or else.'

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little