I actually finished this book several days ago, but I’ve had to wait to blog about it until I’d decided whether I thought the author, Elanor Dymott had managed to bring off what I’m assuming was her aim in writing this, her first novel.
The book is about the search by Alex for the truth behind the murder of his wife, Rachel, who has been beaten to death in the grounds of Worcester College, Oxford. The police have got nowhere in their investigation and friends are urging Alex to move on, quite literally, to a new job in America, but he is unwilling to leave England without knowing what actually happened. However, this is not simply a murder mystery. It is as much a love story as we discover the nature of the attachment Rachel, not noted for the depth of her relationships, had to Alex and what it was that he gave to this deeply damaged young woman.
But that is the plot, it isn’t what I think this book is about. In the final pages of the novel Alex remembers Rachel throwing down a book and asking her why she had done so.
Rachel told me…that a tale whose resolution rests only on coincidence is one that is hardly worth the telling.
I questioned her conviction, asking her to explain exactly what she meant, and exactly how she was using the term coincidence, suggesting in return that every piece of knowledge in the whole of the history of time had been acquired by way of a coincidence, to some extent…
‘Not in fiction, darling,’ say said, smiling. ‘In life, yes. It happens all the time, of course it does. I know all about that. But there are rules when it comes to literature. Hard and fast ones, to be broken at an author’s peril.’
Trying very hard not to give too much away, it seems to me that what Dymott is attempting to do here is to write a book that breaks those rules yet at the same time offers a satisfactory conclusion that the reader will accept. The fact that I’m still not certain whether or not she has succeeded suggests that she probably hasn’t.
However, I don’t think this is so much because of the ending as because of the way in which she has got there. You can actually get away with a conclusion that mirrors life in as much as it fails to meet the expectations of closure the reader has come to anticipate. Tim Winton does this brilliantly in his 1994 Novel, The Riders. A book that I don’t think he has bettered. But, that is a book in which the reader is more directly involved in the main character’s search for answers. I think that my problem with Dymott’s novel stems from the way in which Alex narrates what he has managed to discover as it were from a distance. The bulk of the book is his report of conversations that he has had with other characters some weeks prior to the point at which he is relaying them and those characters are themselves recreating events from a time even further distanced from the narrative present. This had the effect of diminishing both the immediacy of the action and for me at least the need I had to know what actually had happened to Rachel. Consequently, the fact that my expectations of closure are not met doesn’t really matter. The rules are broken but to no truly effective purpose.
But, I don’t want to give the impression that I think this is a bad book. For a first novel I think it is very interesting and I will certainly want to read whatever Elanor Dymott writes next but, as so often recently, I find myself wishing that there had been a stronger editorial presence in evidence to sharpen and clarify the writer’s intent.