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2004-05-22My review: The Deadly Space Between (Picador, 2002)

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I read "Oedipal passion" on the inside flap and almost put it back on the shelf. However, it was the only book by Patricia Duncker in the library—I'd for once remembered to look up her name in the catalogue whilst there—and I was determined to take out and read something by this person who'd taught me. I can't remember why I never did so before writing seminars in the third year of uni... but then again, I didn't read anything else particularly before those classes.

Yes, I'm a philistine. Oedipal passion. Brrr.

I've disliked Freudian interpretations of the Oedipus myth for a long time. They seem at once too sensationalist and too contrivedly general... kill your father, fuck your mother... psychoanalytical lit crit seems to thrive on blindspot ideologies which fail to take whole vistas of human experience into account. At the same time, there's enough vagueness to fit the patterns to many situations... young children do tend to possessively compete with each parent for the attention of the other, for instance.

I read a few dozen pages at about 2am that night and finally ran out of energy.

Gratifyingly, I forgot the inside cover copy overnight. Has anyone else noticed the irritating tendency for publishers to overdo the information given in these promotional spots? I find they're often best skipped or read only after finishing a book. Of course, avoiding blurbs can render making book choices rather tricky; it would be better for all concerned if publishers could be trusted to only give spoiler-free text in them. (Ditto reviewers... there's a Publishers Weekly review on the US Amazon site that gives away the whole damn plot.) Anyway, I forgot that this particular blurb was there, which in my view was A Good Thing.

In defense of the publishers, it's quite difficult to give a sense of what the book is about without giving spoilers, and it's something I'm going to struggle with over the course of this meandering review. What I'm prepared to say is that the central cast are (to me) refreshingly ordinary, even if some will deem them unconventional. They include Toby, the parochial teen who serves as narrator; Isobel, his artist mother; Luce, Isobel's aunt; Liberty, Luce's partner. The plot revolves around their reactions to Roehm, Isobel's mysterious new love interest. Perhaps I use 'ordinary' only because I've read a lot of illustrated fiction recently, or perhaps it's because the characters' ordinariness contrasts sharply with the sense that each has their own life 'off-stage', but it's the word I've chosen and I'm sticking to it, dammit.

If by this stage you're itching for comparisons to other writers, there are similarities to Jeanette Winterson, Louis de Bernières, A. S. Byatt or Margaret Atwood. The Deadly Space Between feels far more grounded in reality, though; all of the characters feel like more than vehicles for the plot, the writing doing a good job of putting you at ease.

There are many references throughout the text to the characters interacting with fiction and concepts explored by Freud, Camus and others. (The title comes from a line by Herman Melville, which is quoted at the beginning of the book.) One or two reviews I've since read comment that this comes across as a little distracting or pretentious, but I disagree: I've little experience of any of these writers, and quite frankly need bludgeoning with a few words of elaboration. It wouldn't have been enough to simply mention names, and such inclusions never really seem forced. Real people think about and reflect upon things they've read, therefore so should fictional characters.

It's a great read. P.D. has particularly effective methods of rendering conversations which happen to be mostly one-way... bare fragments are given, or only one side of the speech. The descriptive prose itself is very finely crafted—dipping into other languages and possessing a fluid, spoken quality—and the mix of many short sentences with plenty of commas and syllables gently persuades you as a reader that merely skimming is undesirable. I can imagine listening to someone read this aloud and not being at all irritated that it would take longer than picking the words off the page visually. That's quite rare praise from me, given how little TV or radio I'll pay attention to.

The pace rapidly accelerates towards the end of the novel, having in all probability held you spellbound for a couple of hundred pages. Now, I'm pretty attached to realism when not reading ostentatiously fantastical worlds such as Sandman, and at one point I thought I'd spotted an inconsistency in the way computers were handled—writers, like film-makers, aren't always the most technical of people and may be unsure what is feasible and what isn't—but by the time I put down the book it felt appropriate. Because the ending... the ending is a doozy and actually sent me reeling, trying to reconcile and make sense of the things I'd recently read.

So... go find. Enjoy. There are currently some cheap second-hand paperback copies on Amazon UK and US, which may make things easier. If by some disturbing coincidence you're in the Midlands (and I don't know you) I'll have Stourbridge library's copy back to them shortly. Stella, you might like the psychological aspects of this one. :)


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