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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

    £22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

    Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

    Day In a Page

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test