Monday 8 June 2009

'the empty page between the sky and the earth'

Watch Me Disappear
by Jill Dawson

I was so impressed by Jill Dawson's The Great Lover that I wanted to read more of hers and lighted upon this novel not only because it had received favourable reviews but because it afforded me the opportunity to read the classic Lolita as a form of preparatory work. The parallels between the two books are clear, perhaps even blatant when you consider the surname of its main character (Humber), and Dawson has mentioned that she actually placed some direct phrases from Nabokov amongst her text. But these connections aren't so much plot related, what we have here is not a female response to Lolita, but it does go some way to filling in the gaps I mentioned in that book, to sensitively look at the burgeoning sexuality of a young girl whilst simultaneously examining the effect of a society that places that pressure on youngsters sooner and sooner.

Tina Humber is a marine biologist specialising in dwarf seahorses who like her subjects has 'bobbed through my life, floating rather than swimming'. The parallels between her and those creatures don't stop there, Tina also suffers from a kind of waking blackout, later diagnosed as a form of epilepsy, affecting the part of the brain named for its resemblance to the seahorse: hippocampus. Now I'm being a bit heavy handed in my explanation of it, Dawson is far more clever at finding linking themes and ideas in her fiction and developing them. Here, it allows her to create a character for whom memory, reality and fantasy are far harder to differentiate between than the rest of us.

I've always had a poor memory in some ways; my memory for pictures, scenes from my childhood, that kind of thing, were just. . . patchy. Sometimes vivid; mostly nothing at all. Now that's shifting. The odd word has hightailed it and instead, pictures are hurtling back.

Whilst she now works in the Caribbean she grew up on the flat Fens, an area she hasn't returned to, even for her father's funeral. The wedding of her brother brings her back to that exposed landscape and brings back into focus the disappearance of her friend Mandy Baker at the age of ten. It is said of many men that they had an eye for the girls but in the case of her father it may have been far more specific, especially given that he left the family for a much younger woman. Is it possible that he was involved in some way with Mandy's disappearance, that that was why he felt the need to take his own life? But this isn't a whodunit, the plot takes a back seat to the journey undertaken by Tina into her memory and like the best journeys the destination isn't the important thing, it's about what we learn along the way. Much of this is in Tina's sexual awakening into adolescence, scenes that combine the tender and brutal aspects of growing up, but there are also the confusions of a closer examination of one's own family, that part of life that seems so set and protected from enquiry.

As well as the unreliability of memory, the waters are further muddied by Tina's guilt. After a petulant fallout she failed to ask Mandy to join the trip from which they returned to find her missing. The diary she bought as a birthday present for her is unwrapped and there is a moment of shocking reality as Tina, convinced that Mandy will not be found, writes her own name in the front page. But there is also the guilt that comes from not having been honest with yourself. Has Tina always known more than she cared to admit about that disappearance? Her struggle is against her own ability to remember and the resistance she encounters when she gets home.

Occasionally Dawson falls into the trap of signposting the era with easily recognised markers. Whether it's Love Thy Neighbour, Dairylea triangles, or the 'I Love Donny' sticker on Mandy's bike, the sheer volume of them means that at times it's like watching one of those 'I Love The 1970's' programmes rather than picking up on well observed detail. There are however a couple of occasions when these assume more significance. A Sindy hairbrush assumes almost totemic value and Tina's Girl's World toy (a life size mannequin head containing female grooming products, lipstick etc) manages to serve as a symbol of that pressure on young girls to grow up too soon, and also as a great example of sibling bickering when her brother insists on calling it Girl's Head and festoons its hair with grenades from his Action Man (see, I'm doing it now).

Other writers have made much of the Fens as a locale and Dawson is no exception. The rich dark earth, the constant threat from the water; exposure and a sense of oppression are somehow combined. The always visible horizon provides a scale which accentuates how much the human inhabitants are at the mercy of the forces that act on them. What Dawson does so well is to combine those with the powerful forces that come from within us, particularly that which unites her with Nabokov: desire.


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