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     Volume 4 Issue 12 | September 10, 2004 |

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Book Review

Behind the big mask

Stevie Davies enjoys Susie Boyt's compulsive and compassionate tale of loss, Only Human

To this compulsively readable novel about mourning, Susie Boyt has brought an attentive observation gleaned from her work as a bereavement counsellor, linked with humour and an artist's compassionate sensibility. Boyt, daughter of Lucian, great-granddaughter of Sigmund, is a Freud without being a systematic freudian. Only Human is a sustained act of humane understanding.

Only Human
by Susie Boyt
243pp, Review, £16.99

Marjorie, a marriage guidance counsellor, lost her husband 17 years ago after a bare two-and-a-half years of marriage which left her with a treasured baby, May, on whom she has thrown the weight of her own need. Sane and authoritative as she appears, Marjorie is secretly unhinged. The power of Boyt's remarkable novel lies in its discovery of a language capable of rendering a psyche utterly at a loss, behind the brittle screen of a public demeanour. I was reminded of George Eliot's observation in Middlemarch that "behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control". For Marjorie's is an ordinary derangement. We have all been there, or somewhere nearby.

The sessions in which Marjorie counsels her dysfunctional clients are sheer theatre. The novel's structure works in a rhythm of scenes in which couples perform the banal and bizarre dramas that display human nature at its most mad (and normal): he "said I looked like a rat's abortion", complains one wife. The husband deplores her failure to grasp his sense of humour. In another couple, the performative nature of the family dynamic takes the form of 10 minutes' hysterical sobbing in a "sadness... so deep and high and sheer that Marjorie found herself regarding it with the highest admiration".

As it turns out, Marjorie is a lousy counsellor. Her investment in keeping couples together is a displacement of her own compulsion to clasp the dead Hugh, to hold herself together and not to notice how bereft she is. As Marjorie falls apart, so does her ability to continue her "lively servicing of... old wounds". Beautiful writing blends with inventive plot conceits, the most poignant of which is Marjorie's accidental detection under the bed of a 17-year-old Christmas stocking, packed with faded parcels: Hugh's present, as she thinks, to herself. She shoves it back under the bed. At the end of the novel, it is passed by mother to daughter, who begins to unpack the gifts, her inheritance of her father's love.

· Stevie Davies's latest book, Kith and Kin, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Source: Guardian Unlimited



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