Reviewed by Victoria Best
I wonder if not being able to see ourselves is one of the great paradoxes of being alive – knowing oneself intimately and also not at all. You turn to look at your own profile in the mirror and it is gone. It means we can harbour all kinds of illusions about ourselves that others can see through as clear as day. What I mean is that if you had been able to see yourself objectively that afternoon you might have realised that the game was lost, but instead I think you fancied yourself in some little role in some little story in which you were the heroic returner, the one much waited for, the one who would be forgiven by some obscure law of justice that grants immunity to the tragic.
Samantha Harvey’s third novel takes a microscope to the seething human emotions provoked by betrayal and offers a lyrical pathologist’s report on a long-dead friendship. It is an extraordinary exercise in peering intently at the smallest of details in our encounters and deriving from them the most profound and far-reaching philosophical conclusions. Although its subject is the human heart, I found it to be a cerebral read, intelligent and disturbing, and the image lingered long after the last page of a writer gleefully taking the sharpest scalpel possible to the wounds of the past.
In December 2001, a middle-aged, female narrator gets up in the middle of the snowy night to start writing a letter to a woman she hasn’t seen in years. Over the course of the next six months, the letter will gradually progress, ranging over many decades of the past and telling the story of a broken friendship. Our narrator lives alone and is lonely, despite her friendship with the local café owner, Yannis, and her job at a care home for the elderly. She has a grown son, Teddy, who she rarely sees, and a raging heart: ‘I am not a gentle person,’ she writes. ‘I have not succeeded in becoming one, despite my efforts.’ In the letter, she describes in fragmentary and digressive fashion the crime in the past that has consolidated her resentment and bitterness.
Her lost friend is Nina, known throughout the story as ‘Butterfly’ for the pattern on the crocheted shawl she used to wear. Butterfly is an unusual young woman; Lithuanian by birth, beautiful, selfish, dangerous, self-destructive. As teenage friends, the narrator is drawn to her paradoxical nature – the lack of boundaries and the secrecy, the persistence of her presence and the absence of warmth and affection. It’s almost as if the narrator is presciently aware that Butterfly will cause her harm, but she is so hypnotised by her unique and startling personality that she has to stick around long enough to see how it will be done.
The betrayal itself doesn’t come as a surprise; plot in this novel is always posed as an inevitability, a form of cliché that doesn’t matter in itself, for the only significance is to be found deep in the heart of the experience. The novel opens with its most dramatic scene; after the death of her grandmother, the then 20-something narrator takes a nighttime walk through London and meets the man who will become her husband on the banks of the river Thames. Theirs is an immediate love match, and from their union, a son, Teddy will be born. Not long after this, Butterfly turns up on the doorstep, poor, hungry, lost and needing a place to stay. The narrator welcomes her in, pleased to see her after so many years of not knowing where she is or what has happened to her. Butterfly is damaged; her brother has died and she is using drugs, but this doesn’t prevent her from exerting her usual sinister magnetism. The narrator’s husband, Nicholas, will gradually be drawn into her web.
They have it that jealousy is the most corrosive of emotions and I have felt it corrode me and whittle me down to something dishonorable, this is the truth. […] we realise that somebody we love has loved someone else more, and we feel swiped aside like a skittle. Nothing essential holds me in place, all that I am is swiped aside and scuttled out of sight.
Yet over the course of the novel, we have to wonder whether the narrator’s jealousy is for Nicholas or for Butterfly. She is entangled with both, and the narrative shows us as clearly as possible that the ties binding friends together are as tight and tender as those between lovers. In brief but electrifying scenes, the narrator digs deep into her emotions, dredging up fossilised moments from the past to breathe life into them again and wonder what they meant. But this is a knowing and emotionally astute story, our narrator vividly aware that she is creating as much as recalling, conjuring her friend up out of a mess of emotional layers, laid down by the passage of time.
There is freedom there; there is always freedom in the past. The self you left behind lives in endless possibility.
The narrator also projects Butterfly into the present and the future, as hungry to know what has become of her as she is to understand the truth of their shared past. This is a most unusual book, alive with matters of spirituality and philosophy, stitched together with insight into the way we put stories together out of the disparate fragments of the past. It feels sometime as if you aren’t getting anywhere, as the undertow of memory drags the narrator back and back over the same old ground, but once finished, you have the strongest impression of having witnessed the profound entirety of a life. Almost better read as prose poetry, this is a book that’s all about the writing, and about the painstaking, detailed excavation of the labyrinth that is our emotional memory.
Samantha Harvey, Dear Thief (Jonathan Cape: September 2014) 978-0224101721, 272 pages, hardback.
Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books editors.