Yellow, by Janni Visman

Whatever you do, don't mention the past
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The Independent Culture

In Janni Visman's second novel, Stella Lewis is an aromatherapist and an agoraphobic. Unable to leave her flat, Stella's life is arranged so that everything comes to her: patients at £50 an hour; clothes and cosmetics from catalogues; food brought by her sister Skye or her gorgeous, complaisant lover Ivan. Stella didn't have to go outside to find him. Ivan's a gas fitter: he came to remove her pipes.

Gas bothers Stella. The smell haunts her like a ghost, coming and going inexplicably. It's easy to imagine there might be ghosts in Stella's building. Her last neighbour jumped off the balcony. So did the one before that. There's a new tenant now, Catrina: mid-thirties, wears a mauve paisley headscarf, calls herself a researcher. Catrina wants to make friends. Stella has no need of friends.

When Ivan moved in, he brought a 28-inch TV, a bin-liner of clothes and a cigar box of mementos. The mementos are all of his long-lost love, Sophia Lawrence; but Stella can never ask about her because that's forbidden by the terms on which she permits co-habitation. "No stories from the past. No unnecessary anecdotes. No questions. 'Suits me fine', he said."

Ivan is fond of impersonating Sean Connery playing James Bond. He has his own reasons for not wanting to discuss the past, or the present. Sometimes, like George, he stays out all night. One morning, he shows up wearing a gold-plated bracelet engraved: "True love forever over every single rainbow. XXX S.L. 1978." Is it significant that his lost love has the same initials as Stella and her sister? Did Sophia really emigrate to Canada? Did Ivan really pursue her there?

In Yellow, Janni Visman does a remarkably thorough job of reviving (if that's the word) the forms and techniques of the French nouveau roman and nouvelle vague: the blank, paranoiac interiors; the alienated characters preoccupied with memory; the trailing ambiguities. Her spare, precise prose evokes the bourgeois eroticism of Marguerite Duras, or the codified gestures of Nathalie Sarraute.

As a masseuse, Stella is alert to the body and its language. Seen from the window, a client departs with a gait that is "sexy, lazy, all in the hips". Ivan makes "a noise with his fingernails, working his thumbnail across the other nails, flicking them."

What Visman wisely refrains from importing into the era of postmodernism is the metaphysics: the epistemological slides and see-saws beloved of Resnais and Robbe-Grillet.

Yellow affects a coherent narrative, the plot of an early-evening TV thriller: formalised, but naturalistic.

Men in suits arrive in cars and wait for other men in suits. Wads of banknotes come and go. "I imagine the sort of light breeze that amount of money would make if you could hold it in your hand and fan it with a thumb. The breeze is cool. The breeze is cold."

The reviewer's latest novel is 'Finding Helen' (Black Swan)