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You, By Joanna Briscoe
The Monday Book: Dysfunction and damage on Dartmoor
Monday 08 August 2011
If not quite as popular as Cornwall or Yorkshire, Devon has long inspired novelists. From Lorna Doone to The Hound of the Baskervilles, its rippling pastures, sonorous sea-shores and moorland make an irresistible backdrop to tales of passion and confusion. Joanna Briscoe has revisited Dartmoor, the setting for her debut, Mothers and Other Lovers, in You, her fourth novel.
Cecilia returns, reluctantly, to her childhood home to look after her widowed mother Dora, who has breast cancer. With three daughters in tow and a partner in London, she is haunted by the memory of a 21-year-old love affair at Haye House, a progressive public school patently based on Dartington Hall. Dora is consumed by her own secret affair with another woman. Cecilia's eldest child, now 15, is desperate to lose her virginity to a young itinerant who sells fake organic vegetables. The middle child goes to a conventional girls' school built on what was once Haye House; the third is crippled by shyness. The novel weaves between past and present, mothers and daughters, as anger, love, lust, lies and regret keep three generations in their toils.
Cecilia's parents were hippies, and Dora, offered subsidised schooling at Haye House in return for music lessons, sends her children there. Instead of prefects and uniforms, Cecilia gets teachers addressed by their first names and rock stars' children.
These early portions of the novel are a savagely funny corrective to Eva Ibbotson's affectionate portrait of Dartington in A Song for Summer. Then along come James and Elizabeth Dahl, a married couple of teachers as destructive and seductive as the Crawfords in Mansfield Park. The plot is worked out with pleasing efficiency, and the Devon landscape becomes a character in its own right, tipping the novel away from comedy into something much more Gothic.
Cecilia's adolescent passion for her teacher is clunkingly conflated with her burning love for literature, but her desperation to escape the chaos of parental self-indulgence and neglect is understandable. As a dramatisation of the wild idealism of late adolescence, You is vivid, if somewhat over-familiar; but as a portrait of counter-cultural rural life at its most damaged and damaging, it's hilarious, disturbing and more interesting than either its cover or its title might suggest.
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