The Opposite of Falling, By Jennie Rooney

Writing as sharp as a new pin

Reviewed,Christopher Hawtree
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:53

There is something to be written about novelists who suppress their early work. Although Ivy Compton-Burnett, Graham Greene and Sebastian Faulks have done so, it is unimaginable that Jennie Rooney would disown her first novel, Inside the Whale.

That adroit, observant tale of love rediscovered across the generations made it immediately clear that here was a natural novelist who combined the elegantly outlandish with an episodic structure.

As did that other lawyer turned novelist, Hilary Mantel, Rooney looks set to take a different approach every time. Her second novel takes place in the later 19th century. Again she switches between the point-of-view of several narrators while not shying from interior monologue.

Spinster Ursula Bridgewater has inherited money but her fiancé has taken up with another woman. Across the Atlantic, at Niagara Falls, Toby O'Hara lost his mother in one of his father's early experiments in flight, something which has not curtailed his own endeavours to defy gravity, as he seeks solace with a taste for Thomas Cook's early forays into organised travel. Ursula makes bold to visit America, and takes with her as a companion Sally, an orphan who has spent her early years in a nunnery. If these are damaged lives, there is nothing fragmentary about Rooney's development of the way in which their paths overlap.

To say any more would be unfair. Briskly told, Rooney's novel is not burdened by excessive detail. As effortlessly as Proust or Forster, she incorporates unexpected aperçus. Wisdom is lightly borne. At every turn there are such remarks as "she knew it was a sign of madness to be able to draw a perfect circle". As for Ursula's collapsed engagement, she had thought that loneliness "would have a sharp, new-pin quality to it. She found that, in reality, loneliness was not much more than a muffling of the senses. It had nothing of the new pin about it. It did not sparkle or break the skin. It was just a grey, mouth-dry silence, and it bored her." No word here is outré, but they combine in such a way that "mouth-dry silence" is very much a linguistic new pin.

It will be more than interesting to see whether Rooney produces different narrative structures, even favouring a loose, baggy monster. In the meantime, her work should inspire a canny producer to ask her to write a screenplay.

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