03 November, 2008

'English Correspondence' by Janet Davey

The mechanics of getting a book from the brain of a woman living in London to a small mobile library in a tiny village in rural Australia are daunting. In many ways a metaphor for our whole global economy. The improbability, the number of unlikely choices made across a ten-thousand-mile chain of unrelated people, that put me and that particular book in that converted coach on the same day, in the same place, is disturbing to contemplate.

Yet there we were: me and 'English Correspondence' by Janet Davey.

I've been reading a lot of low-quality nonsense lately, working on understanding how such books are constructed and how their authors use language, how to please publishers of speculative fiction, trying to learn lessons that will help me get my own writing published. But there is only so much of this I can take and I needed a proper book, one that was beautifully written, one that explored character and motivation, one that treated people as more than two-dimensional, stylised, comic-book sketches, one that used words for what they are meant for - to tell, not to show. I might have picked up a book by one of the really good sci-fi writers - J.G. Ballard, or Ray Bradbury, say - but there were none available on the library bus. In fact, there was little that promised anything but shoot-'em-up adventure or hose-'em-down romance, until I found 'English Correspondence'.

Janet Davey's book - her first novel - is one in which almost nothing happens. Time passes, the heroine moves from place to place, there are conversations, but there was no 'plot' to speak of, no three-act structure culminating in an exciting shoot-out, the hero did not get the girl. Instead there were the thoughts of a woman struggling to think her way free of a life painfully unsuited to her, a woman who had made a wrong turning many years ago and who could no longer bear the consequences, whose last prop - the correspondence she maintained with her father in England - is pulled away when he dies.

The heroine is an intelligent, sensitive person who, like most people, does not have the depth of reflection, ever to understand herself and where the roots of her unhappiness lie. Instead, her thoughts skitter about on the surface of her life, trying to make sense of patterns which are mostly epiphenomena, hoping that she will reach a safe harbour by intuition or good luck. I cringed for her, as she teetered, half-blind, on the edge of yet more horrible mistakes. I hope she makes it.

The writing is intelligent, carefully crafted, occasionally witty, and just a little odd. As I read, I was wondering how to describe Davey's terse, almost staccato style when I turned a page to find she had already done it for me. She wrote of, '... her own demarcated phrases, like tidy hedging.'

'English Correspondence' was an oasis. I have been sheltering there and refreshing myself. As soon as I've written this, I will go on across the desert of my chosen genre, looking for a path to follow. It was a lovely spot and I am grateful that I stumbled across it.

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