Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Review: Leading the Dance by Sarah Salway

Tomorrow my virtual book tour goes to the blog of Sarah Salway. Sarah is a wonderful writer: her work is inventive; it's also witty yet deeply serious; it's informed by an odd-ball, quirky imagination and yet utterly grounded in the psychological reality of contemporary lives. Her collection of stories, Leading the Dance (bluechrome), gives us narrators often tipped towards what seems like madness - the bulimic woman who has a portrait painter paint the inside of her fridge, the wife who traps another woman in her cellar, the cleaner who strips naked to clean in the presence of her blind employer - but the light yet scrupulously precise prose allows us to identify closely, and thus demonstrates that such 'madness' is but the kernel of our contemporary psyche. And light as these stories seem - sometimes laugh-out-loud - there is a vein of menace, too, running through them, as the people in them steal and lie and hide their hurt secret selves, as lovers in hotels and husbands and wives negotiate their alienation from each other. Perhaps my favourite in the collection is 'The Fabulous Button Sisters' for its sly and clever yet affectionate satire. It's narrated by a teenage girl who has made friends with a new girl, Michelle, who has had to come to live with her aunt. Here's an extract:
Michelle said it was important we kept up to date with diets. Two weeks ago, she decided that we were only going to eat one colour of food a every meal. She'd got the idea from one of her aunt's magazines. Apparently everybody was doing it. Mum and Dad stopped talking when I came into the kitchen watching as I carefully cut the brown crust off the bread and spread the white inside with butter and cream cheese.
"How about a nice bit of ham with that?" Mum asked.
I shook my head. When I'd first tried to explain about the mono-colour diet, Mum had looked at me with the kind of expression which meant she was storing it up to giggle about with Dad later.
"Or some pickle." Dad was already moving towards the store cupboard but I could see his shoulders moving up and down...
...Michelle thought my parents had a problem with repressed anger. This was why they laughed so much and spent so much time together in such an unhealthy way.
Sarah's two novels are both very inventive. I've started with her second, Tell Me Everything, which bears all the same hallmarks as the short stories and concerns a narrator who reinvents herself by telling stories. I'm finding it hard to put down. Sarah's first novel, Something Beginning With, the story of put-upon secretary Verity Bell, takes the form of a dictionary full of cross references, and is excitingly innovative. It's sitting on my bedside table waiting for me to finish Tell Me Everything - but I have to admit I couldn't resist reading the beginning, and it's so engaging I had to force myself to stop!

And taking all of the above into consideration, I think it's no surprise that in our interview tomorrow, Sarah gets me to confess which of the stories in Balancing in stolen!


Clare Dudman said...

Sounds like you are amassing quite some reading pile there, Elizabeth! :-)

I've read Sarah's novels and short stories and really enjoyed them - like you say they are quirky, original - and have a subtle depth.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Clare, I wouldn't have been amassing it in the old days - I'd already have read them! But now, what with blogging and writing and.. etc etc..

'Subtle depth': that's a really good way of describing Sarah's writing.