The underwater world of the psyche

The Dream Mistress by Jenny Diski Weidenfeld, pounds 15.99

Jenny Diski is a writer whose half-dozen novels have been characterised by courage, a bleak intelligence and complete originality. The reverse side of that originality is a refusal to charm or comfort the reader, and an impatience with making things up, the novel's normal stock in trade.

In her seventh novel, Mimi (one of three interlinked and interchangeable characters whose names play on "me'', Mimi, Miriam and Mel) is a middle- aged woman who habitually avoids intimacy by falling asleep. When she decides on impulse to fetch help for a comatose female tramp in a car park, the derelict stranger turns out to be, or echo, Mimi's appalling mother, Leah. So far it might be a parable of the neglected child forced to mother the neglecting parent, forced to give what she has never received. But nothing is simple in this book. While unconscious, Leah is re-named 'Bella' by paramedics, and when Bella next appears, she is a much younger victim of a terrorist bomb, left faceless by the explosion, involved in a strange relationship with a man who only loves her when she is completely vulnerable. Yet another version of Bella/Leah is an ex-nun with a passion for solitude, like Mimi's. Sex, described with a lingering precision and intensity that Diski awards almost nothing else, periodically galvanises both Mimi's and Bella's lives, and they are linked too by a recurrent theme of leaving and being left.

The narrative is startlingly discontinuous; once you have accepted that, the novel becomes easier to navigate. In the end a mirrored structure emerges, hinted at by a passage where Mimi lies in bed (characteristically) trying to form figures with her legs; "Later, she thought, she would reverse the position of her legs, just for symmetry's sake, even if the 4 it made would be no more than a mirror image of the written sign...'' It's a novel that is very aware of its own structure, never swept from its moorings by the story.

She's not really interested in individual characters either. The underwater world of the psyche is what she dives for, the deep, oblique structures that make us what we are rather than what we seem to be, the repetitive patterns we cannot escape. The result for the reader is a mixture of excitement and frustration as one character fragments into another and the floor of the narrative world suddenly drops away beneath our feet.

The Dream Mistress is energised by erotic obsession but rarely warmed by love. In some passages I suspect Diski was bored, and the language becomes ponderous and strained. An editor should have cut by half sentences like "The unknown distances trod between the tramp's conclusion and her absent story gave Mimi a vertiginous sense that she might, for all Mimi could fathom, have been someone she had known.'' But Diski's dry, cool wit holds chaos at bay, and an unexpected unfolding into profound and magical lyricism in the last pages - Mimi's dream of a long sea-voyage - made me long for more.

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