Professor Elizabeth Stone is the celebrated author of “The Dissident Corpus: John Milton and the Poetics of Difference” and if that introduction to the heroine of Grace McLeen’s second novel doesn’t put you off then the slow rekindling of her love for another professor of poetry may be your reward.
Spurred by the news that her brain tumour has disappeared after treatment, Elizabeth finds a new topic of academic study in the aural music of TS Eliot’s poetry. The research necessary for this new essay brings her back to the university of her undergraduate days. McLeen has laden her narrative with so much introspection and such dense metaphorical weight that the reader can lose all patience with poor Elizabeth.
There are problems of repetitive and unconvincing imagery and awkward allusions such as the musicians in a string quartet settling the violins under their chins, which would be fine so long as the quartet didn’t include a cello. Grace McLeen read English at Oxford, but muddled details such as this puncture the suspicion that the book, structured as a series of chapters moving backwards and forwards in both time and tense, is a biography masquerading as a rhapsody of scholarship and love.
Making a safe start for her first novel Holly Goddard Jones takes a small town as her location for a story of school nastiness, sisterly love and married life all gathered up as the background to a murder.
In a way this is an extension of her collection of short stories Girl Trouble, or at least of the talent shown in that book.
Here, however, while the talent is even more obvious, the several strands of the plot which are meant to interlink become a little too cumbersome. However, there is no escaping the convincing characterisation which gives the story its energy and likelihood.
There is the embattled schoolgirl Emily and her confused tormentors; there is Susannah, wife, mother and teacher, troubled by the statutory restrictions of school management and by the creeping boredom of her marriage, but even more disturbed by the strange silence of her sister Ronnie.
Ronnie is something of a renegade and not always a pleasant one; when Emily finds her body in the woods she keeps it as her own secret until the police are called in and suspicion of murder falls on Wyatt who, like Emily herself, has been mercilessly taunted by his workmates. It all adds up, even if the maths are noticeable.
Julie Sarkissian’s first novel is a story told in voices, all of which have compelling power as they relate their own version of a succession of entangled events.
It is from these voices that the outlines of the narrative emerge, like a ship from a fog; although the fog thins it never lifts completely, the ship moves on and Sarkissian, in bringing the different elements together, does it so gently that the novel never loses its atmosphere of mystery and longing.
Lucy relates her time with Samantha on the farm to which she has been sent for what we hope is safe-keeping. But why is Samantha there, and Stella before her? What is most striking is the way in which an implied violence or restraint never quite comes to the foreground, so that all the action is cloaked in a kind of tenderness. Misleading though this may be it arises from the quality of those voices and of the people with power over their young and damaged lives.
Essentially the book examines the ideas of motherhood, a role elevated here by yearning imaginations to an almost mystical symbolism. Circling around this theme, warming it or darkening it, are relationships based on a dangerously flawed notion of loyalty expressed in fractured, bewildered or radiant language.
* Purchase this book at exa.mn/bookstore