Tony & Susan, By Austin Wright

Reviewed by Peter Carty
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The Independent Culture

A novel rarely receives a reprieve from a publisher. If it doesn't sell well enough straight off, normally that's the end. Tony & Susan first appeared in 1993 but, bafflingly, sank with little trace. Exceptionally, Atlantic has decided to take a gamble and republish, hoping that this time it will achieve the wider readership it deserves.

Tony & Susan is also in that it has an uncommon central conceit: it presents itself as two novels in one. The outer novel deals with the legacy of a long-dead relationship. Susan was married to Edward, an alliance forged in college which expired soon after, partly because she became alienated by his tortuous attempts to become a writer. Twenty-five years have passed. Susan's second spouse is a successful doctor, and she's been busy raising a family and teaching in a local college.

It is a shock for her, then, to receive a manuscript of a novel from Edward. She puts it aside for months but, when she reluctantly picks it up, she's gripped. We can see why, because Edward's novel is set out in its entirety in sections within the main text. The novel-within-a-novel begins with an urbane professor of mathematics driving his wife and child along a lonely road in Pennsylvania. He is forced to halt by a trio of thugs and cannot prevent them abducting his family. Then comes a series of terrible dilemmas as he struggles to cope with the incident and its horrific aftermath.

Edward's writing is cruelly astringent, enhancing his story's minatory undertow and ruthlessly dissecting his protagonist's agonising turmoil. Periodically, we share Susan's thoughts as she reads, reflections charged with a poignant sensitivity. Tony & Susan becomes a meditation upon the whole act of reading - this strange activity which holds us in trances, roaming imaginary worlds. Susan wonders how much the characters are based upon her ex and the women in his life, including herself. More seriously, as she feared, the manuscript brings back unsettling memories of Edward at a time when she is grappling with problems in her current marriage.

Each of Austin Wright's narratives is admirably realised and ably complements the other. In pulling off this formidable feat he joins an illustrious list of writers who have made classic contributions to this intriguing niche, including Edgar Allan Poe, Fyodor Dostoevsky and, latterly, Margaret Atwood. Sadly, Wright is not around to see the new edition: he died in 2003.