Janet Davey ’s books scrutinise contemporary lives, but are reluctant to claim a guiding theme. They are more interested in the failures of intention. The tales they begin to tell meander and lose direction, refusing to crystallise into plot. Her central characters seem baffled by their own histories and motives, and unsettled by those of others. Their misadventures result in no clear conclusions. The tacit contract with the reader – some degree of intellectual labour, leading to knowledge or pleasure – is mostly ignored, especially in her later work. Davey’s first novel, English Correspondence (2003), which brought a measure of acclaim, is the one that most closely approaches the usual workings of fiction. Sylvie is a young mother running a restaurant in France with her ambitious husband, Paul. She maintains a regular correspondence with George, her English father. When George dies, her sense of loss focuses on an irrational conviction that he must have posted a final letter, a communication that would have made sense of her diminished life. Her coping strategies veer and drift. Conversations are drained of meaning, running aground on her vagueness and her husband’s self-interested exasperation. She suspects Paul of an affair, and occasionally hints at mild displeasure, without summoning the energy for a confrontation. She writes to Jerry, an English guest who left a copy of George Meredith’s The Egoist in the restaurant. She sees Meredith’s novel as being like a message from her father, another English George. She barely pays attention to what happens in the book, but dipping into it she encounters stray sentences that seem like responses to her inchoate distress: ‘Jealousy would have been a relief to her.’ Visiting London, she begins a half-hearted affair with Jerry:
She wondered if her letter was in his pocket. From her, a strange woman, meaning strange, not a stranger. He might have read it, finishing a cup of coffee, and left it on the kitchen table. Then, on his way out he’d have picked it up and slipped it in his jacket. There was nothing really in the letter. Nothing anyone would have found interesting.
If this novel is about anything, it is about nothing. Like much of Davey’s work, it broods over a death that takes place offstage. ‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘Nothing’s the matter.’ ‘There was nothing inside to pin her down.’ ‘She had imagined that getting the words right and being brave enough to say them would be like guessing the magic name that would make the story end well and happily. But nothing happened.’ ‘Sylvie said nothing.’ The nothing that happens in Davey’s fiction eddies around mortality, the preoccupying fact of her writing. ‘What the living shared with the dead was nothing; not absolute nothing, which she couldn’t comprehend, but the emptiness through which life flowed.’ English Correspondence evades any statement that might indicate closure. In Davey’s fiction, death brings no sense of an ending. Sylvie’s life continues to flow, and finally there is a veiled suggestion of movement that may or may not become an escape.
‘Something is pushing them/To the side of their own lives,’ Larkin observed of a group of young mothers gathered on a recreation ground. Motherhood and death, often juxtaposed, shape the familiar territory of Davey’s fiction. First Aid (2004), her second novel, intermittently allows for the possibility of tenderness and loyalty, as Jo recovers from the violence of her capricious lover. Jo has never quite come to terms with the death of the mother she never knew, killed in a motorcycle accident at the age of 18. Her young son does his best to help. But Jo, like Sylvie, declines into frozen incapacity. ‘I don’t know. It would be better if I were someone different. I’d manage better.’ Her unstable domestic happiness has been undone by an aggressive lie from her adolescent daughter, Ella. Truth-telling is a solid point of value in Davey’s shifting fiction. ‘They told you not to lie but they never told you why. They didn’t say it changed things, that it was some sort of cosmic interference.’ For Davey, telling the truth is a matter of getting the words right, in a punctiliously indirect style that merges her voice with those of her awkwardly detached characters. Women’s perceptions dominate, but Davey allows men their own sardonic take on contemporary dreariness. Trevor, who employs Jo in his grimy junk shop, is haunted by his own mother’s death. He is compulsively promiscuous, but not without rudimentary powers of sympathy, exercised to the full as he chooses prospective partners. ‘Past thirty, a moderate showing of low spirits was a good sign, he always thought, promising worldliness and some experience with men.’ Such moments of rueful humour sporadically enliven Davey’s reflections. But they don’t mean that she might be mistaken for a comic writer: ‘It was funny in a cheerless way, but not that funny.’
Each of Davey’s five novels has a different social setting, but patterns of tone and technique recur. Their protagonists are often shrewd about the lives they see around them, but withdraw from any understanding of their own behaviour. They are achingly vulnerable. Davey’s prose is taut with anxiety, and we flinch from the disasters, major or minor, that threaten on every page. Her characters are for the most part unkind, speaking with a blank indifference to the needs and feelings of others. Moments of compassion stand out like stars. Kindness is an exposure and a hazard. ‘She wasn’t able to risk kindness,’ Davey remarks of the snappish Jo.
In The Taxi Queue (2007), Richard is a repressed gay man, trapped in a staid marriage. He finds himself drawn into a casual sexual encounter with Abe, who is irresponsibly young and attractively careless. Richard, like Sylvie and Jo, is scarred by a loss enacted outside the novel’s timeframe: the death of Jamie, his first partner, from meningitis. Richard’s restless unhappiness as he tries to find Abe again, without being able to admit to himself that he is seeking a different life, is sensitively evoked. Suffering drives him into the confused wandering that is usually, in Davey’s fiction, the habit of women. Abe seems more settled and fortunate than Richard, though it’s soon clear that his apparent ability to deal with life’s trials is an illusion, both for him and his sensible yet obscurely stifled sister. The characters move in helpless circles, painfully aware of one another, but incapable of contact. Abe rings Richard’s office, but doesn’t manage to speak to him. ‘“Are you all right?” was what he had wanted to say to Richard.’
Along with unkindness, failure, bewildered misunderstanding and incompetence, the geographies of London provide recurrent points of reference in Davey’s landscapes of disaffection. Her novels are coloured with a strong and exact sense of place, and the capital is evidently the place she knows best. The intimate multiplicities of its districts suit the textures of her writing, allowing her to weave contrasts of class and generation into her fictional structures. By Battersea Bridge (2012), Davey’s fourth novel, considers some of the troubles that accompany affluence. Anita Mostyn is born into middle-class privilege, without finding that its supposed advantages have been of any real use to her. Despite her private education and the flat her parents have helped her to buy in Chelsea, she can’t really deal with the expectations of her social class. She falters, hesitates and shrinks from every mundane ordeal. Scarcely able to maintain a semblance of normality, she nevertheless notices everything, becoming the conduit for the novel’s stream of comfortless images. ‘It puzzled Anita that she responded in the same intemperate way to the trivial and to the serious. Panic failed to distinguish between the real and the imagined, the past or the present. One day, perhaps, humans would evolve into beings whose fine gradations of reasoning – assuming they still had any – were mirrored in the body.’ Though Anita is not seen to possess any discernible capacity to learn, she is, like Sylvie, allowed a momentary glimmer of potential in the novel’s closing sentence.
Another Mother’s Son, Davey’s new book, returns to the tactics that have become embedded in her work. Lorna Parry is a divorced Londoner, with an unsatisfying job as an archivist, and a tense relationship with her successful and coldly critical ex-husband, Randal (masculine success, as Davey sees it, is always attended by obdurate insensitivity). She has three sons: Ross, one of the most relentlessly unpleasant adolescents ever to walk into a novel; Oliver, who is something of a cipher; and Ewan, who has retreated to the family home after two terms of university life, and now disconcertingly confines himself to his bedroom. The novel unfolds in the present tense, and is told in Lorna’s voice. Any resulting impression of immediacy is undermined by the fact that so much is not said. Lorna never touches on her deepest fears for Ewan, though her ceaseless dread constitutes the novel’s darkest undertow. Ross occupies more of her day-to-day attention. He has an unknowable girlfriend, Jude, and is increasingly at odds with his mother, and his school. The family falls into fragments. ‘We’ve come to get food. Don’t make conversation.’
Trying to act as a responsible parent, Lorna is worried about the shortcomings of an English teacher who seems to be sinking under the burdens of his profession. The parents of Ross’s classmates co-operate fretfully in making a formal complaint about him. The grimness of school culture, and the ruthlessness of parents when they hunt in a pack, is sharply described. Lorna is a distant and ineffectual participant in this hostile campaign, while other conundrums press on her mind. ‘The sleepers on the floor above are nothing to do with me. Jude, Ross, Ewan. It is as if I and they exist in different dimensions.’ When disaster strikes, it emerges that members of her own family are the agents of harm, and not its victims. The novel ends in a welter of shame and uncertainty. ‘Half-remembering, half-dreaming, I hear my own mother’s voice. It comes from a long way back, before I grew up, before I was born; the mother as mainstay infinitely regressing, turning into smaller and smaller copies of herself and bequeathing a diminishing feeling of safety.’
Davey wants to tell the truth about danger. Yet she can’t be counted among the novelists who make it their business to warn their readers, urging them to think differently about their lives in order to guard against catastrophe. Nor does her work attempt an objective evocation of the real. Her interpretation of city bleakness has a personal edge. Describing a boy kicking a can on the pavement in First Aid, she comments that he is ‘too alone and too cowardly to find his voice and yell abuse’. It is an aside that might convince as a glimpse of urban degradation, but other views of boyhood are possible. Davey’s analytical vision has a particular perspective, partly cynical, but predominantly aesthetic. It is slanted by a distrust of narrative mechanisms, inherited through succeeding generations from the modernist convictions of the generation of Woolf and Forster. ‘Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story,’ Forster laments in Aspects of the Novel. ‘That is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist. That is the highest factor common to all novels, and I wish that it was not so, that it could be something different – melody, or perception of the truth, not this low atavistic form.’ Davey might write about the slide into dispossession from time to time, but she is not inclined to cater too generously for what might be understood as ‘low’ within her chosen genre.
Davey’s work is also allied to the tradition of novelists like Jean Rhys, Barbara Pym or Anita Brookner, who quietly insist on the persistence of alienation, domestic or otherwise, in women’s lives. Breakdowns in communication between the sexes punctuate her dialogue. ‘She could see him thinking she was an odd girl and that she was even odder than he had thought,’ Ella in First Aid notes of her boyfriend, who proves himself to be still more peculiar. Trevor, musing on his circuitous courtships, believes that things used to be easier. ‘In his younger days there seemed to be a bit of a story attached to a woman, he generally came in on the tail end of it. Now women had problems. These were harder to respond to than a story. He took his hat off to them for understanding what they were talking about. He certainly didn’t.’ Davey’s refusal of the satisfactions of a shapely story is associated with these gendered tensions. One of Lorna’s problems in Another Mother’s Son is her resistance to the connections offered by storytelling, and her distracted misreading of other people’s stories. That is a common trait in Davey’s disoriented female characters, but it doesn’t quite account for the distinctive quality of her writing. Her fiction takes the reader beyond the oppressions that might account for the frustration, or tragedy, of female experience, or the manifold deficiencies of contemporary culture, or the insecurity that stalks us all, men and women alike. What concerns her most deeply is an inevitable vortex of absence, disappearance and loss. She writes about nothing.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.