Tony and Susan, By Austin Wright

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The Independent Culture

First published in 1993, this forgotten novel from a little-known and now deceased US writer has received a new lease of life thanks to a UK publishing house. It's an unusual move but one that turns out to be fully merited, because Tony and Susan is a brilliant novel which works on a number of different levels.

Behind the rather unpromising title, the premise is simple enough. Susan is a middle-aged and middle-class, married, professional woman who receives in the post a manuscript for a novel by her ex-husband of long ago, Edward. Susan sets about reading the manuscript, entitled "Nocturnal Animals", and we do too, as well as getting Susan's reactions to it, both as a piece of work and as a reminder of her life with Edward.

The story-within-a-story is a familiar enough device in literature, but seldom can it have been executed with such impeccable style and precision. Writers often have trouble running more than one narrative concurrently, because very often one story becomes more compelling to the detriment of the other, but that never happens here. Wright is adept at providing thrills and spills galore in his fictional manuscript, as well as being capable of beautifully crafted psychological insight in his more sedate storyline.

Tony and Susan manages to have its cake and eat it, too. "Nocturnal Animals" is a wonderfully compelling, nerve-shredding thriller, something Elmore Leonard might be proud to write. It concerns Tony Hastings, a maths professor who descends into a nightmarish hell with his wife and daughter when the family are involved in an incident on the way to their holiday home in Maine. "Nocturnal Animals" makes up the bulk of Tony and Susan, providing a page-turning plot as well as scintillating dialogue and characterisation. It also raises moral dilemmas about right and wrong, revenge and retribution, asking how far someone will or won't go to protect their family.

These questions spill over into the tale of Susan, now married to her second husband, Arnold, and mother to their children. The complexity of Edward's manuscript raises all sorts of questions and anxieties in her own life. This narrative thread works twice over. Firstly, it is a scathing look at the basic unhappiness of suburban American life, the kind of pitch-perfect melancholy and bitterness Richard Yates conjured up in his work. Then it looks at the relationship between readers and writers, the way a shocking, morally dubious story makes the reader implicit in its action. Who is the story written for? What was the writer's intention? What does the reader want or expect to get out of reading it? All these questions whirl around in Susan's head and in Wright's efficient, perceptive prose. Of course, such issues have been pondered before in fiction, but Wright is refreshingly unsentimental about it.

There is no obvious conclusion in Susan's mind as to whether reading is an exclusively virtuous act. "She wishes she didn't have to keep proving that it's her ability to read that makes her civilized." But when the last page is turned it's by no means clear that either Wright or Susan believes that reading is still a civilizing influence at all.

Astute, cunning and thrilling in equal measure, this is one lost novel that deserves to be found by a whole new generation of readers.

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