Cosmic Interference

Dinah Birch

  • Another Mother’s Son by Janet Davey
    Chatto, 296 pp, £12.99, August 2015, ISBN 978 1 78474 022 1

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.

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