Winter Under Water, by James Hopkin

A seductive tale of exile

John Tague
Sunday 28 January 2007 01:00
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James Hopkin's first novel is a winningly confident debut. Praising a writer for their use of language may seem as inanely tautological as admiring a fish for its ability to swim, but one of the chief pleasures of this book is its illuminating way with metaphor. There are few first-time novelists who have an ability to conjure language to such magical effect.

The novel opens with its central character, Joseph Eadem, arriving in a provincial Polish city in the icy gloom of December. He has left England in pursuit of his lover, Marta, a research student with whom he enjoyed an intense affair during summer. But his journey is not a straightforward quest: Marta is married with a young child, and he soon finds that she is unable to sever the bonds of home and husband as satisfactorily as he would like. So he moves on, to another city, where a deeper pursuit overtakes him. In the freezing gloom of Poland's winter, his nascent creative ambitions surface and he begins to sketch furiously in a frenzied pursuit of a unique artistic vision.

Joseph's experiences are interspersed with letters he has received from Marta, who is engaged in writing a thesis on three European women largely forgotten by history: the attempted assassin of Lenin, Fatima Kapla; Lya de Putti, a Hungarian aristocrat who became a star of silent cinema; and Edith Stein, a Jew who became a Roman Catholic nun and served as secretary to the philosopher of phenomenology, Husserl, before she was transported to be killed in by the Nazis in Auschwitz. Hopkin constructs a neat structure of point and counterpoint between Marta's own settled, though strained, domesticity and the driven lives of her "underground" women whose own rejection of the settled norms of bourgeois life are so vividly echoed in the experiences of her estranged lover Joseph.

Poverty, desperation, a continuing struggle with work, drink and loneliness test, though never entirely overwhelm Joseph as he flounders in the realities of what he views as his "bohemian" life. There is much reflection in the novel on home and belonging, on exile and territoriality, set as it is in the run-up to Poland's accession to the EU when the country, like the characters, hovers on the verge of a future which will bring unknown and irrevocable change. If there is a fault with the novel, it is in its pacing which, after a brisk opening, settles into a rather repetitive rhythm that inches too slowly forward, saying much the same thing one too many times to engage its reader consistently .

However, that is a small complaint set against its many strengths, the most prominent being Hopkin's deft touch with description. The prose is littered with the sort of startling and poetic metaphors that continually persuade the reader to pause and savour in satisfaction: a controversial discussion is "left behind, like a dog that has bitten one person too many"; icy roads "glimmer like tin trays carrying water"; paranoia "sits on him, like a pigeon on a crust"; the first light of a midsummer morning presses through "like a new coin that can't keep its gleam to itself". A delight in the infectious magic of words animates this novel and makes it a seductive and irresistible read. I doubt there'll be many more accomplished debuts published this year.

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