First Novels: Red-Rose Chain, Gone And The Virgin’s Knot Essay, Research Paper
They’ve started… and I’ll finishRed-Rose Chainby Jeffrey MooreWeidenfeld & Nicholson ?12.99, pp392Goneby Helena EchlinSecker & Warburg ?10, pp230The Virgin’s Knotby Holly PayneOrion ?12.99, pp303This is my final monthly round-up of first novels. My first selection two years ago included Helen Dewitt’s remarkably fresh and original tale of an intellectual prodigy, The Last Samurai; high points in between have been Nuala O’Faolain’s My Dream of You and Accidents in the Home by Tessa Hadley.The past weeks have brought out mostly volumes that seem to advertise their novice qualities. Talent is rare, and skill oddly taken for granted by the general crowd; but rarest and most precious is a writer who can not only tell a story and create characters that will keep us company for life but who actually has something to say. Reading through these contributions has been like going to a recital at your child’s piano teacher’s. You won’t get real music, because the baby practitioners have no sense of shaping or interpreting, but you expect notes in the right order.The only one of this month’s choices to take a definite attitude (humorous) or any responsibility for shaping character and narrative is Red-Rose Chain by Jeffrey Moore (Weidenfeld and Nicholson £12.99, pp392) which got good reviews in Canada and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It’s a bit high-concept for my taste – its premise is that a randomly chosen encyclopaedia page has been the determining factor in the narrator’s life – but the characters are likable, it has no pretensions, and, above all, its tone is confident, amused and amusing.Though the Page, as it is called, is its high concept, this is really a story of the seemingly doomed courtship of a feminist lesbian, Milena, by Jeremy Davenant, a Canadian professor of ‘Shakespeare in translation’, who is so unconscious in his sexism that one can hardly believe he lives in the present day. But then, his upbringing is rather penny-dreadful Victorian, with an unknown father and devoted but passive mother; his step-father, a repressive stick named Ralph, keeps Jeremy from his spiritual father, the delightful and entrancing con-man and gambler ‘Uncle’ Gerard. It is Gerard who leads Jeremy to the Page and fakes Jeremy’s academic credentials, generally encouraging fraudulence.Jeremy at heart is about halfway between Gerard and Ralph – between naughtiness and stodge – and therefore the straight man (in both senses) to the highly literate Milena, a sometime heroin addict who herself shows a certain taste for moderation in her daydream of having a bookshop filled with cats. There are many cartoonish incidents and characters – a neighbour who writes an absurdly politically correct column, Milena’s punky sister who turns tricks for drugs, at least one brainless, bosomy beauty too many – but a contest of scholarship at an academic party and the mutual kindness of Jeremy and his elderly Ukrainian landlady are gratifying.Even this relatively stylish narrative breaks down, though, in its logic: Jeremy may be fraudulent as a professor, but he is far too stupid and unread to succeed as a fraud, and it is disappointing that the author doesn’t peg things with more meaning to the Page, or do something to mesh the elements. Milena is contradictory in ways that seem capricious on the author’s part rather than hers, yet one feels he didn’t mean to write a picaresque.As carefully set up but far more glum is Helena Echlin’s Gone (Secker and Warburg £10, pp230), a classically memoirish first novel about an unhappy family, dark secrets, and an ambivalent protagonist, Elizabeth.Going back to her parents’ house in England to prepare her wedding to the American medical student she met at Oxford and has been living with in New Mexico, Elizabeth is a mass of unresolved neurotic impulses, wanting her admirable fiancé to handcuff her for sex, picking up a redneck, being nasty to religious fanatics.The story alternates between the present and Elizabeth’s adolescent past – a loveless relationship with a brutal young man and then a sexless one, and a similar dynamic with a slutty girlfriend and a too-brainy one, who respectively become involved with Elizabeth’s vile brother and sexless ex.No one here entirely emerges from type into individual, while the protagonist, the usual blind spot of beginning writers, is more cry of pain than personality. The story does not fulfill its premise – that American openness might redeem English repression of emotion. Elizabeth remains incapable of acknowledging the barest facts of experience, let alone emotion, and all the English people act in bizarre ways.Plot or structure or shape simply don’t follow through from set-up; Elizabeth’s father goes missing, but then he just (limply) shows up; the grandmother who seems the root of all repression spills the beans about an abusive past and is blamelessly converted from baddie; and the author can’t seem to figure out what to do with the unaccountably vile brother: she certainly doesn’t account for him. As I often told students when I taught fiction workshops: beginning stories is easy; following through is where you become a writer – or not.Having suffered through Holly Payne’s The Virgin’s Knot (Orion £9.99, pp288) it is hard for me to say this was third-best of the remaining bad bunch, but that’s the case. Set in the Fifties – though this wasn’t clear until about a hundred pages in – it concerns 21-year-old Nurdane, in a mountain village in Turkey, who wears braces on her legs from polio but has a great gift for rug-making – so great that even people from beyond the village believe that her rugs can cause miracles. The rugs are generally bought for dowries, and the bidding, submitted to her widowed father, is fierce.Enter US anthropologist John Hennessy, an anachronistic feminist, who believes Nurdane’s weaving hut sits above the remains of a cult of the goddess Cybelle. This turns out to have nothing to do with anything, since the point is that Nurdane falls for him.Things only get less coherent, with the doctor who has been helping her arranging to marry her without telling her, but it hardly matters what a mishmash the story is, since even to discern it requires wading through prose like mud, the characters are seen through the wrong end of a telescope, the author seems to believe narrative tension is the same as witholding basic information and she uses words whose meaning she doesn’t know. This one doesn’t even get the notes in the right order.