By Battersea Bridge, By Janet Davey

 

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The Independent Culture

Anita Mostyn, the shadowy heroine of Janet Davey's novel, is in peril and at sea. Brought up to feel inferior to her elder brothers - they the gleaming apples in an old-masterish still life, she the puzzling bit of paint that might be a leaf or even an error – Anita longs for their company. It is ordinary approval or recognition she craves, nothing fancy like full-scale love, but a few solid crumbs that might make all the difference: "a straightforward set of greetings". Yet the intensity of her focus and her need for her brothers keeps them continually at bay.

Anita's early life is fraught with wry conjugations: her brothers were better, boys were better, boys are best. Her severe mother Veronica, almost an honorary boy, loves the house to be full of "Simons and Charlses", her adored sons' schoolfriends. Anita's friends do not much feature. She saves her poignant admiration for her brothers. Their school reports, brilliant with alphas, have vast allure. Even their socks appeal. Their school photos are framed in silver, whereas Anita imagines "failed common entrance" engraved in Latin on her tombstone. She is intrigued by Viking the family hound: "Being a good dog was enough. He didn't have to excel."

Anita's background is grandish and drawingroom-y. There is a large country home, a mews house on the borders of Belgravia, a place in France. She herself is a more modest proposition. There has been an awful drama, but we don't quite know what, and she is in the stage before you start recovering. She may not get there.

Anita is adrift and pained, unable to steer. Her fear of driving and the panic it induces is a sound metaphor for her difficulties with motivation and control. In the world of the novel, she goes on leave from her job, from her life. In a quiet way she inhabits a very extreme state. Sometimes a Viennese doctor in the sky comments on her behaviour, but Anita lacks self-awareness. She lacks self.

You cannot call the lonesome heroine of a beautifully-written book Anita without bringing to mind the novels of Miss Brookner. It isn't an unhelpful comparison, but it not the full story either. There are "skinny jeans" in this book and "vanilla blonde hair", even if these things startle. The novel has a complicated time-scheme, moving freely between past and present. In the present lie Anita's job for a gallery with an undistinguished client list, her brother Barney's impending second wedding and her friendship with Lawrence, an unpromising admirer, who sends her to work at a property he's bought in Bulgaria. Her childhood and teenage, Barney's first wedding, the family's catastrophe and Anita's two significant love affairs call us back into the past. A second reading was necessary to make things completely clear. This is, perhaps, a gamble.

Yet there is a great deal of precision and a wry energy to this novel that is instantly engaging. Some of the writing is of such a high calibre that it causes little sparks of pleasure. It is also subtle and understated: a bit of a triumph.

Susie Boyt's new novel 'The Small Hours' will be published by Virago this autumn

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