BOOK REVIEW / The right time to bite the ballet: 'Prologue: An Unconventional Life' - Joan Brady: Andre Deutsch, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
JOAN BRADY's first novel, Theory of War, was a comet out of the blue, a complete surprise from a largely unknown writer in Devon. It was based on her grandfather's childhood as a white slave in the American South, and its imaginative mastery over such scalding events won it last year's Whitbread Prize. To learn that she had once been a ballerina in San Francisco and New York was odd; ballerinas may be associated with rigour, but not always of the intellectual kind.

In her memoir, Prologue, we learn that ballerinas were encouraged to be dumb. In this Brady was a complete failure. However, she did succeed in sticking to stoic work schedules and weathering the grinding competitiveness. In her rise to the top she demonstrates something of the same steeliness apparent in Theory of War.

Her ideological parents practised 'the Open Door Policy' which meant that she and her sister were doomed to witness marital strife and nakedness, both physical and emotional. Ballet was a cooler universe, despite being riddled with envy. By the time she was 20, Brady was dancing with the most important ballet company in the Western world, George Balanchine's New York City Ballet, where she was photographed at the barre under the vigilant eye of her master by Cartier Bresson, who was crawling around on the floor to get the right shots.

She charts her rise through the system step by step. But the darkest competitive struggle is with her beautiful mother, an intelligent, strong-willed but vengeful woman who sets about trying to destroy her daughter's career. Brady, in her moment of stardom, muffs it. But ultimately she claims her mother's old flame, Dexter Masters, for herself. This astringent memoir (previously published in an earlier form in the States) throws an interesting light on the toughening-up process of the future novelist.

After a period of happy marriage and motherhood, Brady, now living in Devon, tried to get back into ballet at the ripe old age of 38. That might have been lunacy, but she proved she could do it, and deepened her confidence by many fathoms. After the death of her husband she produced her marvellous novel: the dark fruit of all that had been simmering in the sap of her family tree for three generations.