Tuesday 28 July 2015

Book Review: Sugar And Snails by Anne Goodwin

Diana Dodsworth is a respectable, middle-aged university lecturer who lives on her own, with only her cat for company. At a glance, her life is unexceptional - yet from the very first page of Anne Goodwin's debut novel Sugar and Snails, we know she has a secret. It's something that distances her from her friends and family and inhibits her relationship with her boyfriend, Simon. It's prevented her from travelling abroad for the last thirty years and still, in moments of crisis, drives her to shocking self-harm with a Stanley knife.

As it becomes evident that Diana is no stranger to A & E departments, we also realise she's not the easiest person to help - refusing the overtures of friends and the kindnesses of strangers:
Compassion. It greets me in the soothing voice of the triage nurse who takes my details at reception. I shrug it off as due to youth and an unfinished apprenticeship in cynicism, until it pops up a second time in his grey-haired colleague, who lays a gentle hand on my shoulder as she ushers me through the swing doors to a couch in a curtained cubicle, apologising for the wait. It lurks again in the form of the bleary-eyed doctor, a petite woman sporting a turquoise sari beneath her white coat, who won't move an inch without explaining what she's doing. It's as if they're too gullible to register they're dealing with a self-inflicted wound. 
Diana is defensive and sensitive to perceived criticism; worrying obsessively that she has upset her friend Venus's daughter by telling her an inappropriate bedtime story - or rather, that she is judged harshly by others for having done so. She replays details like failing to compliment Venus's metallic blue helix earrings over and over in her mind, like a needle repeatedly stabbing into a fresh wound. This awkwardness could make her a difficult central character to empathise with, but as Goodwin intertwines the present day with Diana's childhood in a north-eastern mining town, the reasons for her feelings of isolation emerge and we begin to understand the darkness inside her.

The multiple strands and recurring memories at times threaten to overwhelm: the present where Simon is leaving for a sabbatical in Cairo; Diana's first meeting him at Venus's birthday party five months earlier; Diana at fifteen sandwiched between her parents in a Cairo taxi; at thirteen being taken by her mother to Lourdes; playing Romeo and Juliet with her school-friend Geraldine and her earliest memory at three years old, dressing up in her sister's tutu. It's a testament to Goodwin's skill as a writer that the thread of the narrative remains clear and pulls the reader towards its secret core.

The timing of a book's revelation is always tricky: too early and the ground hasn't been sufficiently prepared, too late and the reader begins to feel manipulated. For me, if anything, the full truth could have been confirmed a little sooner; once guessed, I was eager to explore the important contemporary issues that it raises.

Still, this is something which Goodwin picks up with great sensitivity and authenticity in the novel's latter pages. Diana lectures in psychology and, as she supervises Megan - a fragile young undergraduate - in her assignment, yet more painful memories are reawakened. She is forced to revisit her published doctoral research about the flawed process of adolescent decision-making, regretting, perhaps, how firmly she set her own life's path at only fifteen:
Adolescents need their self-absorption to discover who they are. I might have lingered longer in that ambiguous space between childhood and adulthood too, if there'd been anyone to show me how useful that could be.
But the younger Diana really is alone in her otherness; her relationship with her parents doesn't permit open discussion - her father distant and withdrawn, her mother nervous and unable to cope. These passages are heart-rending; reading how this fifteen-year-old faces the most profound life issues on her own, surrounded by hostility, unlocks all the complexity of the present-day Diana. Goodwin balances her personality with precision and care; it's fascinating to read in this article for Shiny New Books about the number of rewrites she went through to achieve this.

If some of the more minor characters like Megan and Simon (and to some extent her sometime friend Geraldine, whom I couldn't quite get a handle on) seem less rounded and primarily there to facilitate the plot, this doesn't lessen the impact of this absorbing and thoughtful story. As Diana takes the first tentative steps towards changing her life for the better, discovering that she too might enjoy the intimate relationships that others take for granted, I found myself cheering from the sidelines.

As a psychologist herself, it's tempting to believe that Goodwin must have based Diana on her own experiences. But this is far from the case; in this article for Sacha Black's blog she makes it clear that she's a non-LGBT author exploring LGBT issues from the outside - which makes this thoughtful, illuminating debut all the more remarkable.

Sugar And Snails by Anne Goodwin is published by Inspired Quill and available here. Many thanks to Inspired Quill for my review copy. 

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