You, By Joanna Briscoe
Saturday 28 April 2012
The trials of rural bohemia was the subject matter for Briscoe's debut Mothers and Other Lovers. Here she returns to the West Country with a windswept tale of inter-generational strife and two life-changing affairs. It's one of those rare reads that lures you into its world and won't let you go.
Writer Cecilia Bannan is 40 when she returns to her childhood home, a Dartmoor longhouse at the end of a steep-banked lane. Accompanying her are her three young daughters, while husband, Ari, continues to work in London. She's moved back to make amends with her mother, Dora, now suffering from breast cancer and from whom she's been long estranged. But despite an apparent reconciliation, past hurts continue to fester. Cecilia is still tormented by the memories of an illicit affair with her English teacher, while Dora has reason to repent an illicit liaision of her own.
Moving sure-footedly between past and present and between conflicting perspectives, Briscoe takes us back to Cecilia's youth – a time when her parents practised "the great liberal experiment of the 1960s and 70s" and children were allowed to roam the fields and drive the car to the village shop. Sent to the local progressive school, Cecilia finds reprieve in the company of James Dahl. An aloof and erudite teacher, he thrills Cecilia with his academic rigour and conservative corduroys.
Meanwhile, Dora, disenchanted with her ineffectual husband, becomes infatuated with James's wife, Elizabeth, a woman who will torture her with her skittish unattainability for the next two decades. It's only when the 17-year old Cecilia becomes pregnant with James's child that these several romantic universes collide with far reaching consequences.
There are many treats to be enjoyed here – from Briscoe's evocation of the damp moorland scenery over which Cecilia tramps quoting from her A'Level set text, to her affectionate send-up of West Country counter-culture and its patchouli-scented disciples. The obsessive nature of teenage love is powerfully drawn. Dahl is never portrayed, as he puts it, as some "Humbert Humbert", nor is Cecilia presented as innocent victim. And in the end, it is Cecilia's mother whose well-meaning naivety sounds the death knell on innocence.
Back in the present day Briscoe keeps us waiting for long-postponed reunions and reconciliations. A passionate and humorous storyteller, Briscoe is a writer who puts her reader's pleasure first.
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