A little less than half-way into this harrowing novel, Lionel Shriver offers us a remarkable set piece. Willy Novinsky and her husband Eric Oberdorf, the central characters of Double Fault, are playing a tennis match on their first wedding anniversary. Ever since she picked up a racket aged five, Willy has wanted to be a top-drawer professional player. It is all she has ever wanted. Eric, on the other hand, prodigiously gifted at anything he turns his hand to (languages, mathematics, basketball), started playing when he was 18. He sees tennis as something he can make a lot of money from, so that he can retire early and pursue a successful second career.
When they first met, Willy was miles ahead of Eric. But Eric has made astonishing progress. At the time of the anniversary match-up, though, Willy is still comfortably ahead in the rankings. She has never yet lost to him when they have played each other. In this match, she does.
The seven-page description of the game is as good an account of a tennis match as you'll ever read. It can also be seen as a coda to the novel. It is the beginning of Willy's realisation that on court, Eric has the "advantage of any poker player who could easily bluff through his hand, because while bettors like Willy had put their very souls on the table, for Eric the chips were plastic". This match represents a point of no return.
Their marriage unravels. Willy's game, in the aftermath of a serious injury, falls apart as Eric's gets better. Willy, who has always defined herself by tennis, begins to lose her sense of self-respect - and her sense of self. (Shriver labours the point: the one quibble about this riveting, disquieting book.) As the novel closes, Willy is no longer ranked; her marriage is over; and Eric is playing his first Grand Slam tournament.
Shriver controls the narrative's pace the way a champion would a tennis match: she slows things down; she draws them out; she ratchets up the speed. The scenes between Willy and Eric are terrific pieces of writing: the dialogue crackles with rage, frustration and bitterness. Like Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Willy is not a likeable character. She is intensely selfish and self-pitying. But Shriver's triumph is to somehow make us understand her, to make us realise that Willy admits to (and gets punished for) the traits that most of us keep hidden.
Double Fault is, as the author's note tells us, "not so much about tennis as about marriage, a slightly different sport". It is about how two talented people can destroy each other, about love and the death of love. It is a devastating, depressing novel. There are in it echoes of Richard Yates's The Easter Parade, that great chronicle of doom foretold.
We Need to Talk About Kevin, Shriver's Orange Prize winner, helped her break through to the mainstream. Double Fault was published in the US in 1997 and is out here for the first time. Shriver is just as unafraid to tackle the big themes; and this is just as unputdownable a novel. In tennis terms, this is a terrific approach shot with which she sets things up for the deadly putaway volley that is Kevin.
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