'There is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives.
Those who are lucky enough to find it, ease like water over a stone, on to its fluid contours, and are home.'
Time to launch 2012 properly with a great book and those the opening lines of Damage by Josephine Hart. Now given that this novel was first published in 1990, has sold over a million copies and was made into a very successful film starring Jeremy Irons, Juliette Binoche and Miranda Richardson in 1993, there is every chance that many of you will have read it, seen it and been blown away by it already, but just in case not, here I am rushing in late to the party again.
I'm now trying to think of other books with a true and genuine 'gasp' moment in them akin to the one I have only just lived through in Damage without needing a defibrillator. Other books where what happens next happens so unexpectedly, or you are so deeply involved in the action, that you just didn't see that one coming. The ubiquitous We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver comes to mind, and I'd add in Legend of a Suicide by David Vann and Still Life, the A.S.Byatt book I have just read... but can anyone think of any more??
I'm not exaggerating when I say the shock felt so profound that I swear my heart missed a beat as I recoiled from the words in disbelief, and when but a moment earlier I had innocently turned the page. Or perhaps, in the case of Damage, I just knew this was all going to implode, had initially been on my guard and wondering what and when, but had been so drawn into the book that I had let my guard slip. Suffice to say I stood back and administered a few hundred volts, read on, finished the book and then lay awake half the night thinking about it... seriously it was as if this de-caffeinated light-weight had drunk a double Americano at about 10 pm.
The first person, unnamed narrator is a middle-aged doctor who makes the move into politics and the life of an MP, but a GP first and always, solid, reliable, formal, detached, yet faithful and operating within the parameters of his profession at both work and at play it would seem...
'An efficient dissembler, I gently and silently smoothed the rough edges of my being. I hid the awkwardness and pain with which I inclined towards my chosen outline, and tried to be what those I loved expected of me - a good husband, a good father, and a good son.'
Happily and conservatively married to Ingrid with the regulation two children, the nice house and the comfortable lifestyle, a relatively trauma-free life of service to others until the day his son Martin, a lothario accustomed to working his way through a rapid succession of blondes, announces he will be bringing home his new girlfriend Anna Barton to meet the family. Also a journalist on the newspaper that Martin works for, Anna is an enigma, a dangerous one, and it is at an art gallery that our doctor first hears her name and her voice...
'...deep, clear and unfriendly.'
When Anna finally recounts the story of her troubled past there is a line that sends shivers down the spine..
'Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.'
And Josephine Hart leaves the reader in no doubt as to how damaged Anna is, seeing it and knowing it, Ingrid senses it, our Doctor and his son are blind to it and what follows will be the most spectacular unravelling of lives and family as I have ever read on the page. An instant and fatal attraction tangled in the web of deceit to be woven between a father and his son's girlfriend.
It sounds such a bland and basic premise for a novel doesn't it...forbidden love...yeh yeh, tell me something I don't know, and 'tis true one or two Amazon reviewers took umbrage, Mrs P was not impressed...
"And the girlfriend! well she's a real weirdo she meets her boyfriends dad after several dates with his son and then invites the dad round to her place where they have awful sex within minutes of him getting in the door!(like you would!) But again even the sex is rushed and is written awfully. I have never read a book as vulgar. I would read another book by the auther [sic] if it was nothing like this one!!"
But to my mind that is to miss the point and focus on the wrong things, yes it is the erotic intensity and its forbidden nature that makes Damage so chilling, but there is so much more going on here. A man possessed and consumed by obsessive love, the boundaries of power and control blurred and behaviour distorted by a potent and slavish love affair. Lashings (sorry) of rivalry and jealousy and plenty of self-delusion that somehow those involved and bound to be hurt by this will accept and understand when they eventually find out.
I wrote about my first encounter with Josephine Hart's writing, The Truth About Love at the beginning of last year. Josephine Hart died of cancer in June 2011, an illness she had concealed from all but her most immediate family, but safe in the knowledge, and overwhelmingly honoured that Damage, and another novel Sin, were to be re-published as Virago Modern Classics. And just look at that cover... perfectly conveying what lies beneath. This edition now carries both a moving tribute to Josephine Hart from Lennie Goodings at Virago, and also an introduction from Josephine herself discovered after her death by her husband's secretary.
Lennie Goodings says this...
'She knew instinctively to look to literature, to words, in order to survive...she understood that we are nourished, at an elemental level, by words, by art. I believe that her novels came out of this same visceral understanding of human nature, of what we lack and what we desire...she was unafraid of emotion, of the elemental, real, stripped down stuff of human relationships.'
Josephine Hart knew terrible childhood tragedy in her own life but also knew that she had survived. That survival caused her a separate form of anguish and for various reasons this novel and others remained locked in her imagination until persuaded by those who knew her that 'you have no right not to finish it'... this from her agent after reading the opening chapters of Damage. It was time to release them and in Josephine Hart's own words
'Writes are predatory. They want to possess the minds of their readers...'
Damage has most certainly possessed my mind in the best possible way and if you've read it I'd love to know your thoughts. If you haven't and you decide you will, please please come back and tell me if you too read it long into the night, and also if you nearly keeled over when I did.