Among Ruins, by Harriet Vyner

Gamble your home and lose all your best stories
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The Independent Culture

Harriet Vyner's first book, the well-received Groovy Bob, was an assortment of personal reminiscences and soundbites on the life and times of outré 1960s art dealer Robert Fraser. Having been acquainted with Fraser from her time spent among that milieu, Vyner was ideally placed to rescue him from obscurity.

Her own life has also provided an abundance of sharp incident - promising matter, at least in outline, for a memoir-cum-novel. Growing up on the North Yorkshire country estate which included the ruins of Fountains Abbey, Vyner had a privileged start, truncated when she was eight by two near-simultaneous, devastating episodes - the sale of the family home to the National Trust as payment for her father's gambling debts, and a sexual assault committed by a stranger, an event which Vyner suppressed for years. By the age of 18 she was living in London, a trustafarian on the fringes of the art world; an affair with Lucian Freud, then in his fifties, ensued. Increasingly dependent on alcohol and drugs, at 23, Vyner served a sentence in Holloway Prison for possession of heroin, an addiction from which she eventually recovered fully.

In the novelisation of these experiences, Laura's rarefied existence in a Northumberland stately home is casually gambled away one night in Mayfair by her father, Charles, who "having been handed the box of matches, had set himself ablaze and their own house with it". Solitary on a beach, collecting shells, Laura encounters a man; he subjects her to a violent attack, which she discloses to no one. A move south follows, where Laura fits uneasily - or rather, doesn't - into a succession of state schools. Relative impoverishment brings a kind of release for Charles, who soon leaves his beautiful, bored wife, for a more accommodating companion. Barely adult, Laura drifts to London. Mildly obsessed with a much older, famous painter, Christopher Kovel, she writes to him; he responds, and a desultory relationship begins.

This potentially fascinating material is ill-served here by an awkward structure and an odd, plodding manner. Vyner employs a snapshot method similar to that used in her previous book, but the result is oblique without being charming or clever. Her style is highly elaborate and appears to be untouched by even a cursory edit; the grammar is slapdash; sentences are clogged with an inelegant surplus of adjectives.

The first part of the novel passes in a soporific haze of bewildering characters and affected scenarios; it improves as Laura embarks on the affair with Christopher. Her diffidence and revulsion - which one assumes has more to do with the long-buried memory of her first sexual contact than with the age difference between them - is minutely observed, as Christopher, with his "old woman's spectacles", endlessly subjects Laura to "writhing embraces". She slides into reliance on drink and narcotics, but incarceration and rehabilitation bring calm if little insight: "it was a lazy relief that a prison sentence was the weakest conduit towards truthful self-analysis she had yet found." Only the brief illness and death of Laura's feckless father rouse any emotion: ultimately this chilly little book represents less of an imposing ruin, and more a collection of unsatisfactory fragments.

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