There’s a moment, about 80 pages into Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, when what appears to be a reasonably conventional novel takes a disorientating twist (an anecdote about a visit to a Swiss mental asylum), before returning on track. Thereafter, throughout that lengthy novel gaps continously appear where it seems that if you but scratch the realism on the surface for an instant, you’ll be swallowed whole by something darker and mysterious underneath – a different type of reality.In a similar style Deborah Kay Davies introduces you to a dark and strange reality in her wonderful debut novel True Things About Me. The surface details are all correct and recognisable, but the behaviour of her narrator, and the situations she thus finds herself in are at a dark remove. And while Bolaño creates his set piece leisurely*, Deborah Kay Davies pulls the rug out from under the reader in just her second chapter (and the book is characterised by short, sharp page-turning chapters), before you’ve had a chance to wipe your feet, take off your coat and settle into the narrative – and she pulls it off with considerable skill.
The story, told in a first person narrative, is that of a young woman with issues (about her appearance, and her relationship with her family amongst other things), who finds herself drawn into a passionate and violent relationship. Nothing spectacularly original there, in terms of plot, but the treatment given to that simple story is nothing short of brilliant.
In short chapters, all headed by titles that in themselves make for an intriguing read – e.g ‘I have titanic dreams’ & ‘I get tied up once in a while’ – the reader is quickly brought into a parallel universe, where the rules that govern the behaviour are merely alluded to. The danger in any similar project is to explain too little or too much, to ensure that the reader suspends their disbelief. Davies seemingly doesn’t give a fig about setting the scene, providing back-stories etc. Confident in her storytelling she catapults you into this crazed relationship and lets you observe like a fly on the wall – or rather, lets you observe things through the description of her remarkably unreliable, not to mention unstable, narrator.
What the book captures brilliantly is the disjuncture between the rational and the emotional – a bit like Elsa Ferrante’s wonderful novel The Days of Abandonement, or perhaps some of Brian Moore’s novels like The Temptation of Eileen Hughes or I am Mary Dunne – when an intelligent character, with whom we can empathise, gets swept away from the shores of normal behaviour into situations that are beyond them.
And the other brilliant thing about this novel is that Davies knows precisely when to end. There are lots of reasons one can fall in love with a novel, from plot through to prose, innovation, imagery etc. Few people fall in love with a novel because it’s not 900 pages – but, having been on the recieving end of plenty of doorstep novels recently, I’m swept off my feet by this novel that doesn’t feel the need to outstay its welcome.
*A direct comparison between Bolaño and the author of True Things About Me is not the intention (aside from anything, they’re two very different writers and the books mentioned appear at very different stages of their careers), but it does bring to mind an important quote from Lionel Shriver when interviewed by Andrew Lawless for Three Monkeys – speaking of sexism in the publishing industry she said ” [men are] also supposed to write the Big Books—physically big. If I turn in a 1,000-page manuscript, my agent will turn purple. If I’m David Foster Wallace, or Jonathan Franzen, I’d get ‘oh spectacular, your magnum opus, we’ll make a fortune and win the Pulitzer’.””
Tags: brian moore