Sugar and Snails by Anne Goodwin

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Reviewed by Victoria

Diana Dodsworth is an enigma to the reader, a complicated, prickly person in her 40s who seems imperfectly stitched together over a festering mass of secrets and traumas, clinging to her solitude as it if were both salvation and imprisonment. Initially her anxiety and defensiveness can be frustrating, and the story that she is gradually revealing takes a little while to come clear, but when it does, we are in the midst of an extraordinary situation and one that we should all hear a great deal more about. I don’t want to give too much away, but Diana’s tale is a complex, fascinating and highly contemporary one, and Anne Goodwin’s novel takes us into the heart of an experience that most of us can scarcely imagine.

The novel opens with Diana falling apart. Her fledgling relationship with the divorced Simon seems to be threatened by a six-month sabbatical he is taking in Cairo. Simon wants Diana to visit him, but Cairo acts a piece of shrapnel lodged in Diana’s memory. She has her reasons for not wanting to go there, and they are reasons she feels incapable of sharing. Instead, her response is to self-harm.

Maintaining an even pressure, I scrape the knife along my arm. The bauble clones itself over and over, beads on a rosary that multiply and merge into a glistening red band. Dropping the knife, I bring my arm to my mouth: the vibrant colour, the taste of hot coins, the pain as sharp as vinegar spearing the fug of nothingness with the promise of peace. When Simon left, I was drowning. Now I’m floating on a sea of calm.

On the surface, Diana seems a coherent and capable person. She is a lecturer in psychology with a book behind her that ought to have received more attention than it did. Her subject was decision-making in adolescence, her revelation that 15-year-olds were the most impatient with decisions out of this group, impetuous, overloaded with emotions and unable to bear their own ambivalence. Now, she finds herself returning to that material when she is assigned a troubled student. Megan has had family issues that kept her away from her work and now she needs to make up credits. Returning to this material in her teaching, and to her own life-changing decision at 15, will provide a significant part of the puzzle that is Diana’s psyche.

As the storyline in the present unfolds concerning Diana’s work and relationships, we are also unspooling the fabric of her past. All we know for sure is that Diana was a misfit in her family, who struggled to deal with her. Her mother had anxiety issues of her own, and her father was distant and lacking in affection. There’s not much love lost between the siblings, either, with Diana in the middle of an older sister and younger brother. School has been a trial for her, too, right from the start:

All my hopes that school would widen my horizons caved in on me. I didn’t understand that the letters above the stairs spelt out BOYS on one side and GIRLS on the other. That my mother would laugh, then plead, then slap me hard on the legs and carry me up like a sack of coal when I tried to go up the wrong one.

She makes friends with a girl called Geraldine who is as much a frenemy as a companion, and the usual childish sufferings of ostracism, alienation and bewilderment seem to hit her harder than others. There are a number of flash points in the past that are gradually being revealed to the reader – a trip to London to visit her older sister who is training to be a nurse, the holiday she took to Cairo with her parents, the night she is set upon by youths as she waits for a bus. The complexity of the story as it tries to hold all of these moments in suspension results in a touch of confusion here and there. Particularly when there are several storylines in the present to be followed too: Diana’s relationship with Simon, her current friendship with Venus, who loves her but can be clumsy with her feelings because there is so much Diana has never told her, and her work with Megan. It’s a testiment to the skill of the author that this ambitious tapestry of timelines is on the whole perfectly clear. And once we begin to understand the problem that ails her, then all the pieces fall into place in a way that is both highly satisfying and makes us reassess everything that’s passed before.

Diana isn’t easy to love; she is self-absorbed, a prey to overthinking and second-guessing, touchy and easy to offend. But this is also a very accurate portrayal of a damaged individual, and one with the self-awareness to realise she often makes life harder for herself without wanting or meaning to. As she moves through her crisis – a crisis motivated by trying to live like a so-called ‘normal’ person – she does begin to find answers. One of the best parts of the novel is her relationship to her father, who is himself troubled by his own actions in the past. Anne Goodwin’s ability to take a difficult character and show the wealth of suffering that underlies their behaviour is beautifully demonstrated in the development of their relationship.

I felt by the end of this story that I had been taken into a world about which I knew nothing – but which it seemed immensely important to understand. Vivid and visceral, Anne Goodwin’s debut novel provides an astute and fascinating portrait of a protagonist struggling with unusual demons.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Anne Goodwin, Sugar and Snails (Inspired Quill Publishing: Derby, 2015). 978-1-908600-47-9,  342 pages, paperback.

Anne has written an article for our Bookbuzz section about writing Sugar and Snails.

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