(Looking for a swallow rather than a full glass? ORANGE Squirt below.)
Kathryn Harrison’s 1997 memoir, The Kiss, considering the author’s four-year-long consensual relationship with her father, opens, as you might have guessed, with a kiss.
“Against such backdrops, my father takes my face in his hands. He tips it up and kisses my closed eyes, my throat. I feel his fingers in the hair at the nape of my neck. I feel his hot breath on my eyelids.”
Anne Peile’s debut novel, Repeat It Today with Tears, opens in a similar way: “The first time I kissed my father on the mouth it was the the Easter holiday.”
The reader is meant to be shocked. And, fair warning, the author has laid out the book’s subject matter in the opening line: Here there be dragons. If you venture further, you do so at your own risk.
For surely it is risky, taking on such a subject for your first work of fiction: “..something that’s not allowed by law, something that’s frowned upon by the medical profession, by the Church, by society as a whole; it’s a taboo.”
Susie’s response is that “My sister has a scent called that, but it’s spelt with a ‘u’ at the end. Tabu by Dana. I don’t like it, personally, it’s awfully strong.”
You can take a lot from that brief snippet, but do take care to note, as well, that Susie is an excellent speller. How many people would have taken note of such a distinction? Taboo. Tabu. Very few.
Susie has been in a select group of students, lauded for her intelligence, dedication and work ethic. Anne Peile does not give her readers any opportunity to dismiss her heroine as either a thoughtless impressionable adolescent or a misguided white-trash tart.
Susie pursues her desire with steadfast ambition, and her success forces the reader to another level of discomfort with the love story she is telling because her pursuit has been deliberate and considered.
What would have been a more normal love story for Anne Peile to tell? That of her father’s relationship with her mother. That of Susie’s friend Julian’s mother and father. That of Susie’s sister Belinda and the boys who don’t ring when they say they will. That of her mother and Ron. Nothing at all romantic about these. And not a lot of love there at all, actually.
Here is how Susie observes such relationships:
“It seemed that women, once they were settled in a marriage, existed in a world where things spilled out and spilled over. Their hard-skinned soles overlapped the edge of their mule sandals, hair escaped from under scarves, slack stomachs and breasts overflowed garments, groceries spilled from carrier bags, children fought to wriggle free from a pram harness of a hand’s grasp, always there were messes spilled and dirt trodden that must be mopped and wiped.”
Those are familiar tales of mops and spills. Readers know them well. But, anyway, her father was never married in this sense to her mother.
When he first meets Susie (though not being aware of her true identity), Jack explains that, as a young man, an alcoholic, he let many people down and, seemingly Susie’s mother was one of them, though Susie has pieced together her mother’s betrayal from moments of fury, not from a forthright account. Susie’s mother told Belinda and Susie that their father was dead.
In some ways that doesn’t matter to Susie; her ideas about death still afford an opportunity to keep her father close to her. Close in his absence.
“…sometimes, when you remember that someone is dead, there seems to be a black space cut out and it is in the shape of their outline. Therefore it is their absence that marks their former presence. Coming to an end is the turn of the card which ensures that there was existence. In that way you can say that there can never be an end because the not being continues, in perpetuity, to prove the being.”
But there is the possibility that Susie is able to cope with a loss such as this because she has learned to contain the uncontainable.
The back cover of the book does speak of secrets and obsessions, but it also mentions madness. And we learn early on that Susie can put away things which trouble her severely.
Susie does this in regards to some of her sister’s actions. She simply blocks out what disturbs her, ignores those parts of conversations at home. She copes, but in the absence of confrontation or acceptance.
“Because I found it upsetting I put away contemplation of it in a section of my mind that I could shut off. When they discussed the operation I used only part of my conscious awareness, in the same way as you can prevent yourself from breathing in a bad smell.”
But what I think is truly daring about Anne Peile’s novel is not her depiction of madness, but her depiction of sanity.
Her story asks the reader to consider all the unhappy relationships that you have come into contact with, to consider how normal their unhappinesses are.
Like Julian’s home life: “It’s seriously tough going. […] It’s my dad working so hard at it, he’s determined to make life into what he sees as normal and you just know it can never turn out like he wants it to.”
She asks you to consider all the ways in which you have seen people struggle to be other than they are, struggle to feel other than they do, to consider all the fractured love stories you have heard and witnessed, to consider the unattainable state of normal.
And then she asks you to consider Susie’s relationship with Jack.
She asks you to consider where the madness lies.
Or is it in the layered shame that Susie bears for having found happiness with her lover?
It’s a big ask. A brave ask.
Originality Taboo subject
Readability Drama is all internal and displayed over a distance
Author’s voice Deliberate, forthright
Narrative structure Fluid, Confessional style with natural back-and-forth-ing
Gaffes None that interfered
Expectations Cover blurb promises ‘sensational’ and ‘illicit’
Maile Meloy’s Liars and Saints (2003)
Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss (1997)