Over the years I’ve come to understand that telling someone’s story- telling it, I mean, with a purity of intention, in an attempt to get at that person’s real desires and sufferings- is at one and the same time an act of devotion and an expression of sadism. You are the one moving the bodies around, putting words in their mouths, making them do what you need them to do. You insist, they submit.
The Virgins, Pamela Erens
There’s a puff from the Independent on the cover of Pamela Erens’ The Virgins which compares it to Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and on a fairly superficial level I suppose there are similarities, both are novels about teenage angst and lust set during the seventies narrated by men reflecting on the girls they loved in their youth, but while The Virgin Suicides is a Greek chorus of relatively benign voices united to honour the memory of the girls they adored, it quickly becomes clear that Erens’ novel is a much darker tale, a story of obsession which is closer to a confession than anything else.
Set in an elite private boarding school, it examines a cohort of teenagers slowly beginning to show the cracks of the incredible internal and external pressures they are facing. At the heart of this group are young lovers Aviva and Seung, an improbable couple whose tale, our narrator soon makes clear, will not be a happy one.
Erens’ writing captures the spirit and the memory of what it is to be a teenager, and while her fresh prose will resonate with anyone who remembers their first serious teenage romance, Erens’ prose serves as a stark reminder of how the destructive flame of obsession can consume and warp anyone who stands close enough to it.
Teenaged girls meddling with witchcraft in the churchyard of Dry Falls parish seem to have woken something up. As an incessant heat wave holds the town in a stranglehold, the women of the town begin to have nightmares and as Henry, the town priest, investigate, his wife Cora begins to feel increasingly isolated.
The above, is the plot of Ann Arensberg’s Incubus as I managed to gather it from reading this book which took me weeks because its tendency to meander away from the details of the plot and insert a multitude of irrelevant descriptions made it a very frustrating read. The novel starts with a vaguely academic tone as Cora promises to provide a scientific record of the events of that summer, then proceeds to narrate her husband, mother and sister’s life stories… though it isn’t too long before she veers away from focusing on the paranormal aspects of the summer to provide tedious descriptions of her cooking and wax lyrical about outdated notions of femininity, basically positing that all women occupy a vaguely pagan status and that cooking, wishing and gardening are tantamount to witchcraft. I found the “we weak and helpless women” tone of the piece profoundly irritating.
The characters were poorly rendered and unbelievable. For all that Cora says about her husband Henry, he remains a shadowy figure, and there is no relationship between him and Cora to speak of but at least the author has tried to shoe horn in some depth of character here. The rest of the novel was stocked with 2D characters whose bland interactions held neither interest or credibility for the reader. The author genuinely seemed more interested in describing dry chicken dinners than developing a plot concerning the incubus.
The ending of the novel was so bad it was laughable, I won’t include too many spoilers but it mostly involves a showdown between the forces of heaven and hell in a church, the priest sustaining a sprained ankle and Cora(who the whole town seems to have agreed was too boring to become a target for the incubus) deciding she is like Persephone locked in her husband’s underworld. I was left wondering what on earth the author could have been thinking.
A town plagued by an Incubus is a subject with the potential for a really gripping novel, but somehow Ann Arensberg has managed to make it deathly dull. It’s almost a snatching defeat from the jaws of victory scenario.
At times, Aresnberg writes very pretty descriptions but given the weakness of characterisation and plotting I did wonder whether food or travel writing might be a better genre for her than supernatural thriller.
As the world and his wife know by now, I’ve got a big thing about Alice in Wonderland, so it may not come as a big surprise to learn that my eye has been caught by flowers planted in oversized tea pots or giant cups and saucers like the ones from Marks and Spencer and Interflora below.
Shopping in a junk/antiques shop in Huntingdon this weekend (I prefer the term junk shop, they still existed in my youth… now everything is vintage or antique, I grumble and digress) I found this giant tea-pot which I think will be perfect for planting something up in- I’m torn between an English Ivy/miniature rose combo or a more practical herb garden. It came with a plate to stand it on, but unfortunately that didn’t survive my boyfriend knocking them both off the table, though the tea-pot has which is impressive.