Vulnerable in Hearts, by Sandy Balfour

Like bridge over troubled waters
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The Independent Culture

"Though I loved him dearly," his son writes in this highly unusual memoir, "I sometimes thought I hardly knew him." Even on his deathbed, their conversations were coded, cautious and full of silences, "like the bidding in bridge". In a moving scene, Tom offers Sandy a "tour" of "what remains of his body", with "no muscle, no bulk, no strength", where the ribs were "like the windblown dunes of a dry, white desert". Asked if he is ready for death, he can only reply enigmatically: "It's your lead."

For the Balfours, bridge was both a passion and a rich source of catch phrases. Yet its strange rituals and terminology - penalty cards, takeout doubles, forcing passes and the crucial notion of "vulnerability" - also give Sandy an ingenious (sometimes amusingly over-ingenious) way of talking about the emotional undercurrents and communication styles in his family.

Vulnerable in Hearts interweaves the story of a bridge obsessive with an account of the development of a game which happens to have acquired its definitive form in 1925, the year Tom was conceived. It explores grief, nostalgia and other painful feelings with great simplicity and candour. And it is full of sharp detail, whether of Tom's physical presence, different styles of dealing, even the photos from girlie magazines and handprints in human ash on the walls in the back room of the crematorium.

There are moments when it helps to know the game, as in the lovely account of a hand played shortly after Tom's death which still seems haunted by his presence and acerbic comments. But even bridge virgins should enjoy the lively anecdotes about its history. An early promotional film included an ostensibly comic scene in which "three southern ladies, looking for a 'fourth', pounced on a Negro butler". A 1916 recruitment poster shows hearty chaps settling in for a cheery game in the trenches. Prisoners in Alcatraz, forbidden cards, ingeniously adopted dominoes for the purpose. When Eisenhower was appointed head of Nato, he made a point of selecting as his number two (and successor) a fellow bridge fanatic.

Sandy Balfour's marvellous first book, Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8), described how he left South Africa and reinvented himself as British, using his passion for crosswords as a metaphor for a certain kind of Englishness. Here bridge provides some equally resonant metaphors. Outwardly rather genteel and "wholesome", it is a game based on a relationship with a partner - "someone who sticks with you through the trouble you wouldn't be in without him" - which can easily turn ugly or even violent. Balfour cites a celebrated case of 1929 when a Mrs Bennett shot her husband after a dispute at the table. She was acquitted because, in the startling words of one juror, "She was only a woman... if she'd really been trying to hit him, she would have missed."

Matthew J Reisz is Editor of the 'Jewish Quarterly'

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