Book review: Teethmarks on My Tongue

Eileen Battersby, literary correspondent at The Irish Times, has written a fine debut novel that is peppered with high-cultural references and yet manages to be a thumping good yarn, despite the fact that the first person narrator isn’t altogether likeable.

Eileen Battersby

Dalkey Archive, £15.50

But what saves Helen, a spoilt American teenage horse-mad nerd, obsessed with the solar system, is her growing self-awareness.

Set in Richmond, Virginia, where her remote father is a leading equine vet and horse owner, Helen is no southern belle. 

This oddity is androgynous, has two different coloured eyes, and relates more readily to animals than humans. 

As well as riding horses, she likes nothing better than peering through her telescope from her comfortable bedroom.

The novel, set in the 1980s, gets off to an auspicious start when Helen’s glamorous mother is gunned down on the street by a man who transpires to be her lover. 

Helen sees the murder on TV. It attracts media attention — but you wonder where the novel can go after such a dramatic start.

But it’s a good if rather extreme device for revealing Helen’s lack of emotional engagement, as she describes how “a cold helpless feeling” came over her after witnessing the crime. 

Helen is conscious that she and her father “were equally repressed” and utterly self-reliant.

However, it becomes very clear that while Helen is her own woman, she is not at all streetwise. 

When her father sells Galileo (the name Helen gave a difficult horse that she looked after), she is bereft and cuts loose, going to France, the country to which Galileo has been sold. She is nicely set up having won $10,000 in the State science prize.

Alone in a Paris restaurant one evening, Helen is picked up and plied with booze by a ‘struggling artist’ called Marc. What follows is a description of utter sordidness. 

Helen is lucky to escape from this odious man. She was naive enough to think that he was concerned about her welfare when she vomited all over herself and gratefully went to a ‘party’ with him where he promised he would wash her clothes and tend to her.

Animals turn out to be a safer bet. An ailing dog attaches himself to Helen. She christens him Hector after the Trojan prince in Greek mythology. And he turns out to be a trusty companion that gives Helen a purpose. 

She gets a job in a large stable in Ambiose in the Loire Valley. And it is there that this girl, given to “daydreaming about horses or space and just living in my head” learns what it is like to love and to lose.

Later, having left her job, Helen makes a pilgrimage to East Berlin to see the work of the German Romantic painter, Caspar David Friedlich. She credits this artist with helping her to understand what it is to be human. 

And that is what this odyssey is all about. The physical journey that Helen undertakes is mirrored by her spiritual and emotional awakening.

Helen’s cold father, with whom she has very little connection, looms large in her consciousness. 

He stole her dream of being a scientist, having told her that she’s more interested in the narrative story of the scientists she admires than their discoveries. 

He has her marked down as a historian, a lesser profession, he implies.

This enjoyable novel ends, however, on a strange note. But it has a curious aesthetic symmetry about it, a karmic quality that sees Helen coming to an understanding of her mother and feeling sympathy towards her and her need for emotional drama.

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