Fiction

20th June 1997 at 01:00
I'll toddle", says Jacob, setting off for the pub, in Stevie Davies's The Web of Belonging (Women's Press Pounds 6.99). Unfortunately for Jessie, his wife, who has come to depend on him ("he was simply there for me, the medium in which I've lived, like light, air, water, bread"), he never returns. Though Jessie had given up her job as librarian in order to take in, one by one, Jacob's relatives as they became helpless and dependent, she is now faced with rebellion. Jacob has broken free and refuses to be bound by her web of belonging.

This calamity knocks Jessie off course. A woman of Christian principles, she is accustomed to putting others before herself and struggles to maintain her devotion to Jacob's batty and ailing relatives. But they are a trial, especially May, her mother-in-law, who holds most people, even Jessie, in contempt. ("May is constantly calling me mum. Throwing the word with a kind of focused bale, as if playing quoits.") Whereas before Jessie baked cakes, pastries, cooked soups and stews ("Feed my sheep, Jesus said"), confident in her role as a selfless, coping person, she now admits that unease underlay this role: "It was a troubling compound of sacrifice and selfishness."

Stevie Davies uncovers the lies and inattention that can enter the most well-intended lives. She brings to her task such perceptiveness and humour that this novel is both tender and hilarious. Though Jessie finally emerges to a new life, this is no simple tale of female empowerment, but charts instead an unsteady progress towards recognition of pain and loss.

"My cornered spirit grinds against the conditions of its confinement," Jessie comments in Stevie Davies's book. There is less interrogation at the level of dialogue in Esther Freud's Gaglow (Hamish Hamilton Pounds 16.99), but taken as a whole this is a beautifully integrated book, each layer of the story forming part of a meditation on the capacity of the past, however destructive and fraught with tensions, to become, through the pursuit of memory, a healing agent in the present.

Esther Freud's novel begins in the summer of 1914, with the Belgard family on their grand country estate, Gaglow. There are three sisters and one son, who goes off to fight when the war begins. The family at first cannot believe the horror his letters report, but gradually they too have to submit to the starvation, bitterness and confused loyalties.

This evocation of Germany during the First World War is intercut with a present-day narrative told by single-parent Sarah Lindner, granddaughter of one of the Belgard daughters. She, too, is one of three sisters, all of whom have different mothers but the same father, a famous painter. Sarah's description of the sessions she spends posing for her father evoke paintings by Lucian Freud, Esther Freud's father. And this blurring of fact and fiction will create for many an additional frisson of interest. But even without this fascinating overlap, this book represents a formidable achievement. It is highly visual and small details are placed with such skill within the narrative that the novel instantly springs to life with a lightness of touch that belies the depth of thought that has gone into its making.

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