Daphne by Will Boast

Reviewed by Annabel

The vogue for using ancient myth to inspire contemporary novels continues unabated. Last year, Kamila Shamsie updated the story of Antigone in Home Fire, in which a family is riven by politics. Now living in the US, English author Will Boast uses the myth of Daphne to drive his debut novel.You don’t need to know the story of Daphne to appreciate this book but, for me, reading a little about it first, helped me to see more deeply into how Boast uses the myth to inform his writing and the characterisation of his singular heroine.

Here’s a summary: Daphne is a nymph who rejects the advances of Apollo. She asks her river god father, Ladon, for help: he turns her into a bay laurel tree. At the front of his novel, Boast uses a epigraph quoted from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to capture that moment of transformation.

As the novel begins, Daphne tells us about her condition and the first time she experienced cataplexy, although interestingly, Boast never names it as such. She was reading the Mayor of Casterbridge and Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane are falling in love, fast…

The book dropped from my hands. Nested under my heavy blankets, I felt it: my skull buzzing, icy, electric, like I’d touched my tongue to a battery or bonked my funny bone, though it seemed to come not from outside but within me. I shook my head to clear it, reached for my book. I couldn’t get hold of it. It kept slipping from my fingers. […]

Yet somehow, for ten then twenty seconds, as both Elizabeth-Jane and I trembled on the verge of either ecstasy or disaster, I just couldn’t pick up the book.

I couldn’t move at all.

Experiencing any strong emotion can render Daphne temporarily paralysed, any time, anywhere; the duration of the attacks are variable, but generally correspond to the strength of her emotion. Daphne’s life in San Francisco is rooted in coping mechanisms, finely honed in the years since her diagnosis. Each day she gets up; ear-buds in, she travels to work where she analyses the lab data, then to the gym, then home again, food and drink, bland TV, bath then bed. She gets through it day by day, using the same mind picture of cattails, willows and light on the river to calm any emotions as she tires.

But then it’s the weekend. As usual Daphne meets her best friend, her only friend, Brook, at a bar. They’ve been going to the same boring dive for ages which suits Daphne. But this night, the bar is busy with new, noisy folk in there. Brook who is Daphne’s total opposite in character is at the bar schmoozing while getting the drinks, but Daphne is unnerved by the noise, so she goes to play pool, a good distraction, and that’s when she meets Ollie.

Relationships have been a no-go area for Daphne, but there’s something about Ollie. They take tentative steps towards each other – an old-fashioned courtship in a way, sex being out of the question for Daphne for the moment. It was rather lovely to read about them getting to know each other in this way. Ollie does begin to shake things up for Daphne, surprising her in carefully calculated ways, and she begins to live a little. Could they ever make it as a couple?

Matched against the story of Daphne and Ollie are those of Daphne and her work, and her support group of other sufferers from the condition – to them she’s a hero, for she is able to work, many of them can’t. Daphne is a lab manager; she compartmentalises all the aspects of her work, she concentrates on the admin and data. She tries not to get too close to her co-workers, she can’t let their stories affect her. As for what her lab does, testing medical devices like pacemakers in dogs, it’s as if she deliberately chose a job that few want to do, so she can box that away too. She does pride herself at being good at it, although she tries not to talk about it. Choosing this career does set the reader a challenge; it will take many out of their comfort zone, but it would be a mistake to stop reading because you disagree with it. The staff all need their jobs, and they all have their own problems which Daphne must deal with and find the right balanced approach for.

In the background also, there is Daphne’s relationship with her widowed mother, who is about to embark on a new romance too. Daphne has to rehearse her conversations, so emotion doesn’t get in the way. Although her mother can irritate her (whose doesn’t?), their’s is a good relationship.

Although subtitled ‘a love story’, Daphne is far from a conventional romance. Instead it’s about a young woman who has missed out on a normal life, being able to branch out a little and find a new place in the world. Boast’s prose is not fancy, the story moves along at a good pace with Daphne’s clipped narration and dialogue; but, like, the novel’s setting in San Francisco, there is a laid-back feel at times too, the city providing atmospheric detail. The other members of her group and the homeless guy she passes on her walk to the bus stop every day are also vividly realised. Daphne is the star though, and Boast’s narrator is hard not to like, however irritating she can be. When she is faced with a series of crises, our hearts are in our throats with concern for her and soothed every time her mantra about the cattails kicks in successfully.

Boast set himself a hard task in writing this novel, and he has succeeded in creating a rather beautiful thing, I loved it.

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and also blogs here.

Will Boast, Daphne (Granta, 2018) ISBN: 978-1847088352, paperback original, 288 pp.

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