A whiff of corruption in old Vienna

The Fig Eater by Jody Shields (Doubleday, £9.99)

A particular anxiety shadows the pleasure of reading Jody Shields's first novel, a stylish literary thriller. The anxiety arises from the artistic licence the book takes with the lives of well-documented historical figures. As a novelist, I'm all for artistic licence. But the historian I also am worries about altering the historical record. So the suspension of disbelief comes slowly, and a little unwillingly.

A particular anxiety shadows the pleasure of reading Jody Shields's first novel, a stylish literary thriller. The anxiety arises from the artistic licence the book takes with the lives of well-documented historical figures. As a novelist, I'm all for artistic licence. But the historian I also am worries about altering the historical record. So the suspension of disbelief comes slowly, and a little unwillingly.

The Fig Eater takes as its point of departure Sigmund Freud's famous case of Dora, first published in 1905 and a cause célÿbre for feminists. They found in Freud's self-confessed blundering and arrogant treatment of the 18-year-old girl a case of patriarchy with its pants down.

Ida Bauer (Dora's real name) was brought to Freud in 1900 by her father, Philipp - a wealthy, syphilitic businessman. For some years, she had suffered from loss of voice, a nervous cough, depression, mysterious abdominal pains. She had also attempted suicide. During three months of the talking cure, Freud took his picklock to Dora's dreams and charted the course of his theory that sexuality is the key to psychoneurosis.

A picture emerged of a young woman who had become the means of sexual barter between her father and Herr K (Herr Zellenka), the husband of his mistress - who was also Dora's intimate friend, and the object of her homosexual desires. An ordinary story of middle-class Viennese family life, you might say, with the difference that Ida abruptly upped and left Freud after three months. She became not only a famous case, but a celebrated proto-feminist heroine.

Ida went on to live a life hardly free of tribulations. But she married and had a child, became a bridge master in partnership with Frau Zellenka, and died in 1945 in New York. Her elder brother Otto, first child of this dysfunctional family, became the head of the Austrian Social Democrats.

Shields's novel uses this rich matter in a way that both tantalises and irritates. She transforms Dora, now aged 18 in 1910, into the victim of a murder in Vienna's Volksgarten - not simply the possible victim of secret liaisons between corrupt elders. Dora becomes a case, not for the never-mentioned Freud, but for an unnamed Inspector. An adept of the new scientific detection, the Inspector echoes Freud's analytic technique in form, though not content. He rigorously gathers clues without leaping to judgment. He clears his mind of prejudice to allow telling facts of body and gesture to leap out. He believes that randomness and listening will reveal the truth. He is alert to dreams.

Though the dead girl is called Dora, the main players in Ida Bauer's life retain their real names. Yet what is asked of them follows the novel's demands, not reality's constraints. Mysteriously, Otto is made five years younger than Dora and given TB. Such high-handedness makes one look for significance where there may be only intrigue, and leaves one wishing that Shields hadn't felt it necessary to use matters of public record at all.

That said, this is an artful and evocative thriller. Shields's Vienna is rich in the texture of corruption. She has a painterly eye and her scenes are atmospheric. Her frozen TB clinic and her doctor's surgery, with its latest cure for female sexual ills, are masterly set-pieces. And her best characters are ones of her own creation.

The Inspector's Hungarian wife, Erszebet, is an ur-female, an adept of gypsy lore. Her kitchen teems with the flesh of eviscerated foul in which omens are to be found. Possessed by Dora's murder, more alert to the girl's inner life and troubled sexuality than the Inspector can be, she secretly sets out to unravel the mystery. Wally, the adventurous English governess who is her sleuthing sidekick, is besotted with her in a way which parallels Dora's infatuation with Frau Zellenka. Of course, it is the women who finally solve the case of Dora - whose last meal was that charged symbol of female sexuality, the fig.

The reviewer's book 'Freud's Women', written with John Forrester, is published by Penguin

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