BOOK REVIEW / The day-to-day pain of hated stains: 'Marble Skin' - Slavenka Drakulic, Tr. Greg Mosse: Hutchinson, 13.99

WHEN you think you've gone to an absurd extreme, French teachers advise with regard to the French accent, take it a little further. The Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic appears to have transposed this advice to her most recent literary undertaking. In her second novel, Marble Skin (translated, curiously enough, from the French), she reaches for universal truths by setting an ordinary mother and daughter upon an extraordinary narrative course - one in which stylised melodrama and a sustained, quivering intensity are essential to the novel's method and to its message. No sentence is unconsidered in Drakulic's bald, if poetic account, and no event, however mundane, is without symbolism. For example, when some wine is spilt on a tablecloth, we are told of the narrator's mother: 'She hated stains. They pained her. I saw her suffer. The pain condensed and locked itself away inside her.'

This level of intensity will surprise those familiar only with Drakulic's essays. How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, the collection which launched Drakulic in Britain and the United States and which earned her the double-edged compliment of 'the Gloria Steinem of the East', garnered acclaim because of its accessibility, its grounding in the lives of ordinary women across Eastern Europe and in the rituals of those lives - cooking, doing laundry, finding apartments, caring for children - all recounted in conversational tones. And while Drakulic's first novel, Holograms of Fear (which tackled issues of illness, mortality and affective relations) is stylistically reminiscent of Marble Skin in its detachment and simplicity, its narrator was closer to the voice of Drakulic the essayist, finding and relaying truth in its uneventfulness, in the very day-to- dayness of life's ultimate questions.

In these earlier works drakulic extracted unversality from the common denominator of the domestic, as a banal activity which generates meaning precisely through its banality. But in Marble Skin she reverses this method. This novel, too, plays itself out on the domestic front: many of the events which unite mother and daughter are ordinary in the extreme - bathing, menstruation, cooking, cleaning - but here they all take on the weight of the extraordinary. Intermingled with occurrences that are certainly not universal, these daily happenings are given equal weight: a sip of coffee or a turn of the head have the same significance as a rape.

In the novel, an artist produces a sculpture of a woman in sexual abandon and titles it 'My mother's body'. Her estranged mother, upon seeing a photograph of the work, attempts suicide. The artist daughter, who is also the narrator, then returns to her childhood home to care for her parent, and there, in the course of a single night, recalls the events which led to her departure at the age of 14. They involve her mother's lover, who ultimately became her lover as well.

Although this may sound like Lolita retold by the nymphet herself, it is crucial to Drakulic's narrative that the man - never named, never physically described - is in some profound way irrelevant. He exists purely as a metaphor, a catalyst for the emotional dynamics that are already in play between mother and daughter. As the narrator says, 'To learn to know her I had to become her. It was the only way of breaking through her silence.'

In broaching the subject of mothers, daughters and their sexuality, Drakulic is brave and, to a degree, successful. Whether or not they find the portrait palatable, all women will recognise some element of themselves or of their mothers in this novel; and men can, in reading Marble Skin, partake of a realm which is (obviously to varying degrees) familiar to but unspoken by the women around them.

But the novel is hardly without flaws. Drakulic occasionally passes well beyond authenticity and into ridiculousness; as when the narrator enters her mother's bathroom: 'The surface (of the tiles) is still wet, pink and viscous like the damp membrane of the uterus. The watery blood oozing from it makes me nauseous. Place of hate. Place of love.' Moreover, in tackling mother-daughter ties, Drakulic struggles against cliche (all women turn into their mothers, for example), a fact which perhaps explains her reliance on the consistent detachment of the novel's Duras-like prose. But she appears at times to forget the risks and lapses into mundanities that cannot in be rendered symbolic. Recalling her mother's comments on her first period, the narrator says: 'In an undecided, flat voice, a shadowy voice inhabited, I felt, by some ghost, she murmured that it happened to women every month and that I would recognise the start by the pain in my abdomen.' Painful as it is to read, this passage recalls the teen novels of Judy Blume; but only sentences later, Drakulic writes what could be lines from the most indulgent 1970s feminist poetry collective: 'Blood, secret. / Blood, a blow of the fist.'

The delight of Drakulic's first novel was that it courageously brought new perspective to the universal theme of illness; the drawback of her essays was that they did not, despite their reassuring grounding in reality, do more than confirm Western preconceptions of Eastern Europe. Insofar as it is possible, Marble Skin represents an amalgam of these qualities and these faults: at times the novel offers what is strongest about feminism (dazzling insight into a familiar theme), while at others, it serves only to reinforce feminism's worst and most trite indulgences.

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