A Good Voyage, By Katharine Davies

A Midsummer Night's Dream for today
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The Independent Culture

What to do when things have gone wrong? Go to the hairdresser, come out looking different, invent a new CV, follow where chance leads. Or keep on hoping in vain. Or do nothing. Or jump off a cliff.

What to do when things have gone wrong? Go to the hairdresser, come out looking different, invent a new CV, follow where chance leads. Or keep on hoping in vain. Or do nothing. Or jump off a cliff.

All these alternatives appear within the first few pages of A Good Voyage, as the characters establish themselves, each making an appearance in Katharine Davies's play-like, dream-like first novel. Although the action is told in the third person, it is played out in a series of short scenes, each headed with the name of whichever of the six main characters is in the spotlight.

The novel is play-like in a specific as well as a general sense. After the introductory quote from Twelfth Night (which includes the lovely image of "changeable taffeta" and the "good voyage" of the title), Davies is not long in having Valentina\Viola exchange London for Illerwick/Illyria. Illerwick, near the mountains and the sea, is in Wales. A short walk away through a wood, which has perhaps drifted in from A Midsummer Night's Dream, stands Beech House. Here Leo Spring, or the Duke of Illyria, pines for Melody, headmistress of the local school. Fitch, one of her pupils, and the deputy head, Mr Boase, also dream of her.

Valentina's twin brother, Jonathan, has broken the understanding that they would only return to Sri Lanka, the scene of their childhood, together. It is the shock of this betrayal which impels her to have her hair shorn off and to lie to Leo about being a gardener. She finds herself up against the Herculean task of restoring the gardens of Beech House, neglected since Leo's party-loving parents let everything - including their only child - hang loose in a haze of wealthy hippydom.

True to the Shakespearean spirit, little is as it seems. The headmistress/Olivia is much more foolish than Fitch/Feste, and although Leo absent-mindedly assumes Valentina to be a real gardener and a lesbian, she is a writer, and soon in love with him.

Illerwick appears to be a small town of the present time, but a town where everyone knows one another and would be invited to a party by the lord of the manor sounds dream-like for contemporary Britain.

Davies plays with the plot of Twelfth Night, changing it as it suits her. The humiliation of Malvolio, in the guise of poor Mr Boase, is done almost to the letter, but does Shakespeare ever let the Fool be so silly as to fall in love?

The artifice of the whole conceit, this dextrous shifting between the plausible and implausible, is what gives A Good Voyage its hallucinatory quality; its texture of changeable taffeta. Before writing it, Katharine Davies was a teacher. Although this change may have been a loss for some children, it is outweighed by the gain for the reading public of such a sprightly, singular voice.

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