Nothing to be Afraid of By Will Eaves

Can I get a side dish of secrets with that?
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The Independent Culture

Here is a tale of two sisters, bound by professional envy and sexual jealousy; a father and son who are not quite what they seem; of a brilliant, drunken cabaret artist and his tortured muse; of a mother with two daughters who hate her and one who died young. It goes without saying that everything is presented with a side order of secrets.

Here is a tale of two sisters, bound by professional envy and sexual jealousy; a father and son who are not quite what they seem; of a brilliant, drunken cabaret artist and his tortured muse; of a mother with two daughters who hate her and one who died young. It goes without saying that everything is presented with a side order of secrets.

Alice, plump and over-aware, should have been an actress. Instead, it is her sharp, knowing younger sister Martha who first attains success on the stage. One evening, while Martha is playing Miranda on the South Bank, an earthquake, the most powerful the capital has known in almost a century, strikes London. As a symbol for what is to come the earthquake is a fair enough image, though its actual significance is never quite explained. However that may be, events do seem to take a surreal turn.

Leslie, the actor playing Caliban, has a fit of fatigue and emotion and Alice takes his part for the second act. And this is a play she was actually meant to review. Notwithstanding her new professional involvement, she gives a particularly nasty notice to her sister, with deleterious results. Her private life takes a fillip when Nick, playing Ferdinand, takes a shine to her. When it is revealed that he is the son of a theatrical agent who also happens to be the bosom friend of her father, you know you're in for a deal of skeleton rattling. Absurd as all this might seem, Will Eaves steers his gaudy galleon with assurance and flair. Only at the end does it hit the rocks.

There's no denying that the various relationships are hard for anyone unbitten by the murder-mystery bug to follow, but for much of the time you are content to be swept along. The reason for this lies in the author's prose. Eaves boasts a style of extraordinary delicacy and acuity: the sentences are perfectly cadenced, the various narrative voices eerily convincing. He has a seductive way of using one image to amplify another. Thus, a trainer at an acting school is "ill with fitness, sun-dried almost". Characters that could so easily have become mannequins from an old property drawer are wholly realised. Leslie, the ageing theatrical queen, reveals in his memoir a tenderness absent from his speaking voice. Alice, similarly, could have been merely an embittered paranoiac; instead, she is alive with childlike, though misguided, benignity.

For all its implausibilities, however, the novel seems to stand until the last 50 pages, at which point it totters. At a purely forensic level, the ending does indeed tie up the loose threads; in narrative terms, however, it fails. The least colourful of his many threads has been picked out as the central one. And the trouble with bad endings is that the disappointment they engender spreads retrospectively. I suddenly realised that the various tragedies, however powerfully evoked, were just too many for the reader to be moved by, that there were jarring notes when Eaves moves into dialect, that the psychological exposition was sometimes ponderous and unnecessary, and that this very knowing narrator was frustratingly reluctant to share his knowledge.

Tales of familial terrors are best told in a style that does justice to the enormously complicated strata involved; murder mysteries, similarly, must be narrated as simply as possible, while magical realism depends on its ellipsis and suggestion. But the combination here makes a ménage à trois, and such arrangements have a way of imploding sooner or later.

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