Monday, 7 November 2011

Interior Lives: women through the lens of Deborah Kay Davies and Tessa Hadley

For an event last week at Swansea’s Dylan Thomas Centre, I was in conversation with Cardiff authors Tessa Hadley and Deborah Kay Davies (the latter via virtual interview, available in full here shortly). The session’s title, ‘Interior Lives’, was appropriate, because the worlds of both Hadley’s The London Train (out in paperback this January) and 2010’s True Things About Me by Book of the Year winner Davies are fiercely claustrophobic.

Reviewing True Things… online for New Welsh Review this spring, I criticised the novella’s ‘goldfish bowl view’ and was impatient with its heroine’s ‘narcissism, passivity, promiscuity’ and tendency to misdiagnose her own emotions. Flicking through it again for the Swansea session, however, I realised how well it stood re-reading, a test that always separates the wheat from the chaff. True Things is a stylish fall backwards down that tunnel of self-abnegation and dependency that is life as the submissive partner in an abusive, violent relationship.

The Bookseller recently reported a 10% drop in sales of ‘chicklit’ during the first half of this year, and this autumn, WH Smith’s abandoned the term ‘women’s fiction’ as a label for their shelves of pastel-hued novels sporting legs and dogs-in-handbags. Hadley’s fiction, while vastly more sophisticated in psychological terms than the top range of chicklit, has been happy to inhabit the interior rooms of mainly female lives. Indeed, The London Train makes two ironically disparaging references to ‘women’s fiction’ that form a pre-emptive strike on Hadley’s part, proving her feisty attitude to critics of the genre. The latter should also note that half the novel is from a man’s viewpoint!

These novels are poles apart in terms of style, setting and cynicism. Hadley favours a degree of exposition and reveals a squeamish recoiling on the part of most characters at stooping lower than a Travelodge room on the sliding scale of roughing it. A compulsion for rough sex, meanwhile, is the downfall of Davies’ narrator, and her characters think and speak (to themselves in the mirror, to babies, to clothes, to their furnishings) in a mannered dialogue that telescopes wit and menace into a few staccato phrases.

And yet here are two novels with similar central themes. Both concern an ill-advised affair that drags a woman below herself, leaving her pregnant, confined to home and isolated from friends. Both use the death of a relative as a catalyst, even if Hadley’s grandmother figure dies respectably in an old people’s home whereas that of Davies crows and claws the bedclothes like a cockerel gone AWOL.

It is a sign of our literary scene’s maturity that the fans of measured romance such as Hadley’s and grotesque tragicomedy such as True Things About Me, can mingle.

This is a version of Gwen's Western Mail Insider books column, published on Saturday 5 November 2011.

Full interview with Tessa Hadley and Deborah Kay Davies available shortly. Next blog: preview of Owen Sheers' Resistance (the movie).

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