Reviewed by Helen Parry
Until Michael Walmer reissued her first novel, A Day to Remember to Forget, I had never heard of Rosalind Brackenbury. She seems to be scandalously obscure in the UK, perhaps because she moved to Florida mid-career. Fortunately for us, this, her second novel, originally published in 1971, is now being reissued and there are plans for her third novel too. I hope I can persuade you that if you are a fan of Woolfian prose and the delicate exploration of complex relationships in your fiction, you will enjoy this book very much.
A Virtual Image is narrated by Ruby Smith, a twenty-seven-year-old art teacher who has agreed to drive down through France and meet her friend, Anna, for a summer holiday together. Ruby drives first to some American friends who were also supposed to have hosted Anna; they have not seen her, although Ruby finds a finished-up tube of British toothpaste in their bathroom. Ruby continues on to the summer school where the two of them had enrolled in a painting course; no Anna. With increasing concern, Ruby journeys to Aigues-Mortes, the only other place they had talked of visiting; here she finds Caleb or Caley, a poet who is also searching for Anna for his own reasons.
France shimmers to vivid life: there is ‘the hot, sour breath of the lorries’ at a roadside café, horses in the Camargue ‘knee-deep in seas, white tails floating and manes streaked with mud, their ribs arched and plain, their muzzles lifted to stare towards the sky’, and delicious food: ‘peaches that were rough and dusty to the lips and spurted warm red juices’, ‘a large golden pear […] too beautiful to eat’.
The mystery of Anna is the pretext for the novel but it is Ruby’s pursuit of her and what she represents to her that form its heart. Ruby describes Anna, her friend since childhood, as Ruby’s opposite or ‘foil’. She defines Anna as being slender, fair, light, ‘clean’, ‘with the features of a fairy, the silence of sweet reasonableness’ and attractive to men, while she herself is dark, ‘black Ruby’, plump, moody and ‘a clown with a clown’s weight to bear, the melancholy soul behind the mask’. Anna’s qualities are superior qualities and Ruby is drawn to them while at the same time resenting Anna.
Ruby feels ambivalent about other things too, not just her friendship with Anna. She despises herself for unoriginality. ‘I suppose travelling’s a cliché, too. […] Oh, everything one does has been done a million times before, it’s awful.’ Her former lover, John, asks her why she’s going to France: ‘I don’t see the point […] of travelling, unless you go somewhere you’ve never been before. I’d fly somewhere really exciting, if I were you.’ But John looks at travel in terms of destination; this novel, as Ruby has remarked above, is all about the journey. Later, in Aigues-Mortes, Caleb offers Ruby a different perspective: ‘It’s inevitable. But it isn’t the action that matters, it’s the way you do it. It isn’t what you do, but who you are. […] you’re seeing us as rats in a trap, Ruby.’ It’s interesting that it’s men who are seeing things in terms of liberty, and a woman who is concerned about constraint. Ruby is very conscious of the freedoms a single woman of her generation can enjoy for the first time, but also that the ultimate destination should still be marriage – and Ruby both hopes for marriage and feels guilty about this.
Anna is more decisive:
I am twenty-eight, she said in her mind, I have wasted time; I am not like other people, I am selfish and snobbish and cold, but I am myself, I am unique; there is a thing I can do, that allows me to be myself; there is no need for men, for love, for friendship, for houses and children and the charming trivia of others’ lives. For twenty-eight years I have been evading this knowledge, acting a part, imposing upon myself things that lie illegible, meaningless in my mind, turning myself outwards to the gaze of others, turning my body towards strangers, accepting the vision of myself that they have seen, speaking hypocrisy because I dislike myself in their vision, lying with my body, lying with my mind; I have denied myself the right with which I was born, to be myself, I have lived so long and do not even know what this means.
It’s an apparent oddity of the novel that occasionally Ruby’s narration is broken by sections from Anna or Caleb’s point of view. In her foreword to this edition of A Virtual Image, Janet Burroway makes a convincing case that these sections are also ‘written by’ Ruby, imagining herself as the other two. Here Ruby might be imagining a different path for herself as artist not wife; will she take it?
The novel ends with a reference to holography. According to livescience.com, holography ‘records the light scattered from an object, and then presents it in a way that appears three-dimensional’. Anna and Ruby are presented as light and shadow, qualities necessary to create a holograph, but Anna is never really there in the book. She is constructed by Ruby from her imagination, a discarded toothpaste tube, her empty hotel room. This reminded me of Jacob’s Room, and in fact A Virtual Image draws on Woolf in many ways: in structural elements of The Voyage Out and To the Lighthouse; in the use of stream-of-consciousness narrative; in the sensitivity of the prose to light and colour:
Shadows fall sharply here, cleaving the light; the square is patterned under the bright leaves of the plane tree in its basket; yet behind the very clarity of light and shade a thousand images move and flicker, a shadow detaches itself and becomes a nun walking, geranium leaves under a café awning shudder and become a man drinking anis, the obscurity under a tin table releases a dog, who crawls out and shakes himself in the sun. On a chequered table top, the shadows of branches part for a moment and the small twigs are the veins of a man’s hand, that is closed tightly upon a woman’s as a decision is made.
Everything is contingent, in flux, dissolving and transforming. Our eyes may deceive us: is it a shadow or a nun, is the man’s hand protective or coercive? And is Brackenbury also making a wider point about the illusive nature of fiction, and Ruby’s unreliability? Pick up this novel, reader, and make up your own mind.
Helen Parry blogs at a gallimaufry.
Rosalind Brackenbury, A Virtual Image (Michael Walmer, 2021). 978-0648920441, 188 pp., paperback original.
BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)