Narrator stays mum on the pathetic fallacy

HEAT WAVE by Penelope Lively Viking pounds 16

Reading this book in suddenly-arrived springtime, I remembered what I'd forgotten: the voluptuous fullness and greenness of Maytime in rural England, how the landscape unclenches. As Penelope Lively's novel moves towards its melodramatic climax in high summer, it similarly evokes the dangerous abandonment produced by endless days of shimmering heat. The pathetic fallacy is suitably invoked: jealous passions brew and rage simmers then boils over as the heat-wave goes relentlessly on. This being an English rural landscape, it's loud with the sounds of agribusiness. The monster machines controlling the crop are metaphors, perhaps, for the characters' attempts to dominate, even hurt, each other.

A traditional tale of adultery and betrayal spiced with middle-class anxieties about social change is given a newish spin by being narrated from the point of view of the mother concerned to protect, then revenge, her wronged daughter. Portraits of passionate mother-daughter love being rare in our literature, you might expect this one to be rendered in an original way, to be written in prose expressing the freshness of the theme. What a disappointment to discover that Pauline, the champion of the betrayed Teresa, recounts her story in language that is plodding and dull. Pauline works as a freelance editor, we are told, busily correcting authors' grammatical mistakes, removing their cliches, kindly pointing out their transgressions of the rules of punctuation. Narrating her own tale, she's clearly on sabbatical, a fan of worn-out phrases, a lover of stating the obvious. Real life, Pauline must contemptuously think, unlike the fantasy novel she is editing as the book opens, does not require searching out, discovering and struggling with, but can simply be taken for granted, flatly recounted, dependent on common-sense notions of one event conventionally succeeding another. The author does not seem to notice, or to care, that Pauline's observations are made to seem so irritatingly trite. What a waste of a wonderful theme.

The problem is to do with omniscient narration. Mother knows best, the conventional wisdom goes. So Pauline, in her summer cottage, spies on her daughter's menage in the cottage next door, and very soon disapprovingly finds that all is not well. Her daughter Teresa's husband Maurice is a cardboard villain we have to greet with boos and hisses while never understanding how the sweetly passive Teresa came to marry him at all. Perhaps he is wonderful in bed. The young couple's bedroom is the only place Pauline can't snoop into, though she manages to catch out her son-in-law fondling his new mistress a couple of times. Pauline comes across as morally superior to the horrid Maurice, to her ex-husband who behaved to her in just the same way, and also to her daughter, who tries to pretend ignorance of her beastly spouse's goings-on. Pauline, in her infallible wisdom and with her superior knowledge, can't tolerate this. She dishes out blame and punishment like an Old Testament God-figure.

Boiling away under the bland surface of this novel you sense the possible existence of another kind of language altogether, one far more passionate and anguished, that has been repressed in favour of plain and comfortable storytelling that won't upset anyone. Just as the pair of cottages where most of the action takes place is semi-detached, so you sense that Pauline does not view her daughter as separate at all. She sees Teresa simply as a version of her younger self. She wishes to rescue her only in order to make reparation to her own former wounded self. Teresa is merely her own face in the mirror. Pauline's omniscient gaze denies Teresa's autonomous and sexual identity. Now this is the nuts and bolts truth of their relationship. What a pity Penelope Lively did not tackle the story of mother-daughter love that includes struggle between them. Then her novel would have come subversively alive.

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