The woman behind the text

THE HOUSE GUEST by Barbara Anderson Cape pounds 14.99

Exactly halfway through this novel, already rattling along well with drama and energy, Barbara Anderson poses an academic question: should works of literature stand on their own, or do they need to be clarified by a snoop through the author's personal life?

Anderson's academic hero Robin Dromgole (more hero than academic) used to swear by the study of text and text alone, though lately he has become obsessively curious about the subject of his doctoral thesis, Alice O'Leary, whom he actually met when he was nine years old and she was staying as a house guest at his neighbour's in Seatoun, New Zealand. It was evident even to a child that something didn't quite hang together about this woman's tragic demeanour, or about the flashing cynicism which Robin later encounters in her fiction. What was her secret sadness, and why, after settling down on a farm in central Otago, did she never write fiction again?

Literary detection as a narrative device is especially effective when the quest is integrated into a larger human drama, in which characters are convincingly established, so readers don't feel they are just traipsing through footnotes. Robin is startled to find that the academic territory he is sleuthing passes under his very feet, that, unknown to him, his childhood circle of friends lies at the heart of the mysterious matter.

Anderson has lovingly drawn this circle: Lisa, a buzzing life-force like her abandoned but unbowed mother; theatrical Emmeline, "like Doris Day gone wrong", who was brought up by the curious American Miss Bowman known as "Aunt" (but was she really her aunt?). Together with Robin, the only son of a widowed mother, they are a perfectly fatherless bunch. And they make their own arrangements, with Robin always a bit too good to be true, pushing a pram or basking in the gleam of his batterie de cuisine.

Beyond the suspense, which it would be criminal to spoil, and the incisiveness and wit of Anderson's prose, a memorable study of grief is also conducted in the novel. From tough-nut Alice who proclaims in her books at least, that "all grief is self-pity", to a bereaved Robin who thinks grief is "like sex, indescribable and different from anything previously experienced", all who are stricken here find their own way of surviving. When a mother needs to find a high chair to enthrone the bald doll of her deceased married daughter, or when a man builds a shrine to his three dead wives' dresses, who is to say they are unhinged? As Robin points out, as long as no one breathes the platitude "time is the great healer", there is hope for us all.

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