I lived for a while in Oxford in the drifting pause after university, a period of 18 months in which I was most definitely "town", yet maintained social links to "gown". One evening, I was invited to dinner at Worcester College as the guest of a postgraduate student. He was rather a strange and gloomy chap, and by extension I felt that the college was rather a strange and gloomy place. So, it was with a smile of recognition that I began Elanor Dymott's eerie debut novel, Every Contact Leaves a Trace, a book that is suffused with shadowy oddness.
The book's thirty-something narrator, Alex, is a lawyer who, along with his wife Rachel, studied at Worcester College in the early Nineties. Many years later, the pair sit down to an alumni supper in the murky rooms of the college. By the end of the night, Rachel is lying face down in the gardens with her head staved in.
A catalogue of not-to-be-trusted flashbacks plays out: the couple's student days, their brief summer fling in halls, their rekindled romance and marriage more than a decade later. It also details Rachel's elite group of friends, a cabal of undergrads riven by rivalry. This is all told through Alex's rather unreliable prism, a technique that brings to mind those of Ian McEwan, Ford Madox Ford and Donna Tartt.
A pervading sense of intrigue swirls through the prose like mist in the spires, first obfuscating then relinquishing details. The manner in which Rachel's true character only emerges posthumously makes this tale a contemporary echo of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. We are made to think ill of the dead.
In addition to creating a cleverly calibrated and creepy murder mystery, Dymott has also fashioned a neatly tailored exploration of the desperate psychology of loss. We learn of the cold awfulness of gaining happiness, after years of loneliness, only to have it cleaved away. "I miss her. That's the long and the short of it," states Alex. "I miss the ease of our silence, and I miss the fact that she wanted me to be with her."
Dymott has written a story that is shaped by the nebulous nature of knowledge, especially as it is found in the upper echelons of institutional learning. She repeatedly reminds readers that they don't have the facts. This is a cunning, sharp first novel that revels in keeping one in the dark. Reading it was an opaque experience not unlike my own evening in Worcester College.