Duchess of Nothing by Heather McGowan

No place like Rome for a female J Alfred Prufrock
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The Independent Culture

Heather McGowan's first novel, Schooling, was a tour-de-force of stream-of consciousness; not the most approachable debut in the world, but certainly one of the most beguiling. Her follow-up is a far gentler affair, where experimentation with style and language has largely been eschewed in favour of a single controlling consciousness, that of the "Duchess" of the title. And what a triumph, and sheer joy to read, this is.

McGowan's unnamed narrator has left her husband and is living in Rome with her lover, Edmund. Edmund works in a café and every day he leaves her at home with his seven-year-old brother to look after. She has taken it upon herself to educate the young boy in an unconventional manner: no school, no uniforms, just meandering through the city while she talks to him about life, love and the universe.

As she does, we have glimpses into the past she chooses not to tell us about. She talks volubly about her husband (older, a customer at the bank where she used to work) and about her married life, which suffocated her. With Plath-like desperation she would attempt to provide her husband with perfect meals and a perfect domestic environment. But it is what she does not tell us that captivates: "things simple to boil, fruit that needed little preparation, from time to time a vegetable if I found the courage to prepare it." What kind of woman needs courage to prepare a vegetable?

A woman who is slowly drowning, is the answer. "Marriage is a tomb," she tells her young charge, who repeats this to his brother when he comes home from work that night. Edmund might be feeling that too - the next day he has gone, leaving the "Duchess" and the young boy just enough money for a few months' food and rent. She must provide for them both, but this is beyond her. Instead, the young boy takes over, insisting that they spend their money on sensible things like bread and milk, not frivolous hats and sunglasses.

McGowan's narrator's view of the world is the artist's view, the madman's view, the outsider's view. Nothing is quite as it should be; tiny tasks are magnified beyond measure (it takes pages for her to consider how to bake a pie) and the outside world is always a threatening place. We are trapped inside the Duchess's head along with her, and it is a dislocating place to be. Having said that, McGowan invests her protagonist with humour, with life, with a fighting spirit even if those she fights against are entirely misconstrued as opponents (a woman buying gloves in a shop, for instance: "My aunt would have eaten this glove buyer for breakfast").

If McGowan seemed to invoke High Modernism with her first novel, then she has reinforced that impression with this beautifully written, highly stylised hymn to a female J Alfred Prufrock ("There will be swimming pools without rats; I will eat food from a plate instead of digging for remainders in the sofa cushions"). Each word is exquisitely placed; each thought carefully honed. Five years have passed between Schooling and Duchess of Nothing; we must hope for a shorter interval before her next great work appears.