BOOK REVIEW / How I let a good man slip away: When Nina Bawden re-read The Ice House (Virago pounds 5.99), things came back to haunt her

Nina Bawden
Saturday 20 February 1993 00:02 GMT

I WROTE The Ice House 10 years ago. Re-reading it was a strange experience. Unexpectedly, I had forgotten part of the plot, and found myself turning the pages to find out what happened, laughing at my own jokes, savouring ironies I had totally forgotten. (This first, favourable reaction was more heartening than perhaps it should have been: writers tend to write books they want to read.)

Asked what The Ice House is 'about', I would probably say 'adultery in Islington'. But that would be to speak dismissively, protectively, as a parent in a superstitious culture might cover a child's face and call it plain and stupid. In fact, it is a novel about love and friendship; in particular, the friendship between two women who have been close since a dreadful episode in childhood when one of them was viciously beaten by her father.

I was shocked by my own part in creating this distressing scene. How could I have subjected a child to this cruelty? I couldn't say it didn't matter because she didn't exist. After all, in my mind, she did. In a sense I had given birth to her. And, to make things worse, I had presented her, later on, with an unfaithful husband.

This reaction is a statement about the curious relationship between a writer and her characters rather than a serious comment. But it is a funny old relationship, make no mistake. Some characters, however hard you work at them, can barely sit up on the page, let alone lead any kind of independent life. There is a good man in this novel who slipped away from me, perhaps because goodness is always hard to make credible. He kills himself before the book opens and although he is much spoken of, even his mother (an anarchic old woman I was pleased to meet again) cannot make him breathe.

Since this is a book about private lives, it was odd to find that what came back to me most vividly was a public event. The penultimate chapter is set in Egypt in 1981, the year of Sadat's assassination. I was on a boat on the Nile, as are my characters, and as their fictional lives reached a violent crisis, what I remembered was the heady blend of fear and excitement I had felt when, against the captain's orders, some of us hijacked a felucca to see what was happening in Luxor.

I remembered, too, how I had come to dread the cold Egyptian tombs. And how, when I was planning the novel, I connected them with an old ice house I had seen in Norfolk. And a story someone once told me about a brutal father, and some strawberries.

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