The Half-Known Life, By Simonetta Wenkert

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The Independent Culture

Simonetta Wenkert's debut novel, The Sunlit Stage, received golden reviews. Sadly, waves of irritation washed over me as I waded through her second. If The Half-Known Life was just a bad book, I wouldn't have been half so riled. But this novel could have been so entrancing; all it needed was some rigorous editing and a little fact-checking.

Sappho, brought up in Greece but now living in London with her husband Tom and their young daughter, meets a beautiful Iranian asylum seeker in the park. Sappho invites the woman and her baby son to move in to her house, despite Tom's reservations. There are hints (shades of Atonement here) that Sappho is seeking redemption for something she has done in the past. The story sways from contemporary London and Iran to Greece in the 1980s and small-town England in the early 1970s. Sappho's mother Celia, who is as well drawn as a nursery scribble, is devoted to her wild school friend Lorna. They travel to Greece in a hopeless attempt to restore Lorna's health and sanity. When Lorna vanishes, Celia marries half-Greek Theo and Sappho is born. The misshapen little family returns to Britain on Theo's orders. Later, when Lorna turns up again, 11-year-old Sappho commits her "crime".

There are two barriers to enjoying The Half Known Life. The first is Mr Potato Head syndrome: the characters have an assortment of attributes that don't quite add up to convincing wholes. Also, the characters fall in love with altogether unlikely partners. Plain, lesbian Celia agrees to marry Theo who doesn't love her because... well, who knows and who cares? The gorgeous, wild schoolgirl Lorna falls in love inexplicably with a man in his fifties whom she calls "The Dapper Gent". He wears a gold-buttoned blazer and his "long jowly face" quivers above his cravat. Broken red veins throb in his wobbly cheeks. A girl like Lorna wouldn't have been seen dead with him. By the way, I can't imagine that the real-life Roy Strong would appreciate the fact that this oily and predatory character shares his name. It's not a novel that Sir Roy Strong would ever read, so let's hope he never finds out.

The other brick wall that faced me as I tramped on, were the anachronisms. In 2003 Sappho enjoys drinking tea from her range of Pantone-coloured mugs, even though they weren't designed until 2007. A character is nicknamed David Miliband, years before the Cabinet Minister was a household name. Every time Simonetta Wenkert allowed one of her characters to go time-travelling, my concentration travelled too.

I don't want to be churlish about The Half-Known Life. It's obvious that its creator has laboured tenderly over it and that she feels deeply about her themes. The time-frame which swoops elegantly backwards and forwards is handled brilliantly. Simonetta Wenkert is a gifted writer, but her second novel doesn't do her credit.

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