Scissors, Paper, Stone, By Elizabeth Day

Dark secrets sensitively dissected

Leyla Sanai
Tuesday 01 February 2011 01:00

Elizabeth Day's debut novel examines a father-daughter relationship that breaches natural boundaries. While comatose Charles languishes in hospital, his emotionally repressed wife, Anne, and defensive daughter, Charlotte, grapple with difficult relationships they have previously ignored. The novel flits between the present and the characters' past, cementing cracks to provide a full picture of a disturbed family.

Day is adept at conveying Anne's onion layers, from curt, critical outer persona to inner yearning for her bullying husband's affection. Anne's awareness of the discrepancy between her behaviour and emotions is evident – she loathes her own whining and carping. Charlotte, too, is drawn skilfully as a woman terrified of relinquishing control over her secrets. The evocation of her first dark memory of her father's behaviour, together with the disconnected numbness she felt at the time, is convincing. The interaction between mother and daughter, fraught with tension and misunderstanding, bristles with festering resentment.

But Day lapses with language. "Rolling eyes" convey frustration three times. "An approximation of lust" and "an approximation of bliss" both crop up. It is also hard to believe in the overwhelming love Anne feels for Charlotte, given her barrage of embittered comments. While it's plausible that she doesn't demonstrate love, her hostility hints at untackled resentment.

Day is too keen to spell things out. After Charles proposed to Anne, he kissed her head "as though it was a reward". We don't need her to analyse the meaning of gestures. And details can be banal, superfluous when not adding to the atmosphere. Day tells us, when someone drinks coffee, "she could feel the hot liquid slide down her throat".

There is also a discrepancy of tense. The prologue starts in the present tense from Charles's viewpoint, switches to Anne's in the past tense, then to Charlotte's in the present. The rest of the novel is related in the past tense, even after it overtakes the time the prologue occurred. It's an illogical oversight that adds to the sense of a rushed novel.

Yet, in many ways, Scissors, Paper, Stone is a brave and thoughtful book. It broaches a taboo that is too often sensationalised and packaged with queasily emotive titles. As an attempt to analyse the dysfunctional web of relationships within an outwardly normal family, it's a courageous and sensitive story.

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