Books: Disquiet on the western front

The misery provoked by two real poets has inspired a chilling fiction. Kate Saunders reports; The Telling by Miranda Seymour John Murray, pounds 15.99

In the summer of 1939, Robert Graves and his girlfriend, the notoriously unpleasant second-rate poet Laura Riding, landed in America. This passionately self-absorbed pair imposed themselves on Katherine and Schuyler Jackson, idealistic bohemians they had never met. What followed was an episode, more bizarre than fiction, which ended with one divorce, one breakdown and one committal for insanity.

Miranda Seymour, Graves's biographer, was so fascinated by this episode that she has used it as scaffolding for this novel. This is not, however, history with a gloss of fiction. Seymour takes the obscure, tragic figure of Katherine Jackson, and gives her a voice that is wholly imaginary in a strange, intense, study of a mind on the outside edge of sanity.

Nancy Brewster is a solitary, prickly old woman, living in an idyllic but decaying mansion on New England's North Shore, uncomfortably close to Salem. She is writing her memoirs, partly to explore the "insanity" that kept her incarcerated for years; partly to consider the oddities of the past.

Nancy's life has never been entirely happy or normal. Since childhood, she has been a madwoman-in-waiting. Nancy's mother is a rigid, do-gooding Boston hypocrite. Her father sexually abuses her, and her distress is cruelly dismissed. The frail, damaged child finds peace with an eccentric uncle and aunt in their magical kingdom by the sea. The world of Point House is described with poetic intensity; nature is a great deal less baffling than humanity.

When Nancy turns 18, she is sent to New York to find herself a rich husband. Instead, she goes exploring in Greenwich Village and meets Chance Brewster. Chance is a charming, brilliant failure, always pouring huge amounts of energy into ambitious literary projects he will never finish. He is the first person to accept Nancy without question, but she is never able to shake off her self-doubt. Did he marry her for her trust fund? Observing her life is like waiting for a precarious pile of plates to slip and smash. When Nancy meets Nemesis, the conditions of madness are all in place.

She inherits Point House, and settles there with Chance and their two children. It is 1939, and Nancy is terrified by events in Europe. She is searching for something to ward off the encroaching evil, and thinks she has found it in the magnetic personality of Isobel March, a visionary poetess. March and her lover, the poet Charles Neville, descend on Point House. They are offered a cottage, but March prefers to move into the main house, where she proceeds to dominate the credulous, painfully vulnerable Nancy.

Seymour's fictionalised Laura Riding is a chilling, convincing portrait of an ego of steel, a woman prepared to manipulate and hurt to get what she wants. Think of a female Lord Alfred Douglas, ready to cast off and destroy a person who is no longer useful. Neville, the Graves figure, is another metallic ego, treated with scant sympathy. (Biographers rarely display their opinions of their subjects with such pitiless clarity.)

Whether or not Nancy's version is to be believed, the reader is left with an unforgettable impression of pure wickedness. Point House is Europe in miniature, and Isobel March is Nazism, spreading mass psychosis. The Telling is a mesmerising account of a mind bent, but not broken. Seymour writes with a beautiful surety of touch and tone, loading every compact sentence with layers of meaning.

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